We are two young Washington residents who are part of a lawsuit, Aji P. v. State of Washington, which was filed in 2018 to hold our state responsible for its contribution to the climate crisis.
Our lawsuit’s purpose was to protect our constitutional rights to life, liberty, property and equal protection of the law — rights that our state government is violating by creating energy and transportation systems dominated by fossil fuels.
Earlier this month, despite two justices lining up on our side, the Washington State Supreme Court declined to hear our case. What this means is that our state’s highest court, which is supposed to be the last line of defense when it comes to protecting constitutional rights, shooed us away and instead deferred to the same political branches of government that are causing us harm. The courts have told us that our constitutional rights are subject to the whims of politicians that many of us can’t yet vote for.
This incredibly distressing decision came after another year of “once-in-a-lifetime” catastrophic climate events that have cost the state of Washington huge sums of money; destroyed the lands, air and waters we are supposedly proud of; and ended the lives of people and animals living here.
We have been betrayed by the very people and institutions who are charged with protecting us, and this is despicable.
We have no doubt that we possess a constitutional right to a healthy environment, and for the state’s Supreme Court to decline to hear our evidence is shameful. The courts have a duty to us and to our planet to act as if our futures matter. The courts have a duty to make sure that the words of our state constitution mean something. It seems only Chief Justice Steven González and Justice Helen Whitener understand this responsibility.
Those two justices, who were outvoted by their colleagues on the state Supreme Court bench, called our case “an opportunity to decide whether Washington’s youth have a right to a stable climate system that sustains human life and liberty.” They pointed out that adults “recite that we believe the children are our future, but we continue actions that could leave them a world with an environment on the brink of ruin and no mechanism to assert their rights or the rights of the natural world.”
They noted that many Washington groups came out in support of our lawsuit “based on the accelerating harm that present and future generations will incur from climate changes within the State’s control, for example, three local tribes with land abutting marine waters have already seen impacts from rising sea levels, as well as impacts from wildfires and changes to river systems … These are specific, localized harms.”
As we read the decision we were filled with emotions, none of them good. Instead of giving us the chance to present our evidence, the majority of the court pushed our petition for review away like children pretending to clean their rooms — out of sight, out of mind. But that is the furthest thing from the truth.
And while Chief Justice González wrote a wonderful dissent, he missed one large, looming fact: Climate change kills people and ruins lives. It could be by storm, starvation, drought, poverty, flames or some other form of death brought upon the people by lawmakers in their ivory towers, but actual lives are being lost, and that loss will only accelerate with each passing year. Shouldn’t that be enough to get the courts engaged?
More people will die or have their lives altered forever because those in charge would rather close their eyes and cover their ears. Young people like us and the generations who are yet to come did not contribute to this crisis but will suffer the worst of it. That is injustice in its most appalling form.
While we are unsurprised by this decision, we hope people understand that we are running out of chances to do what is needed to address the climate change emergency. The United Nations has recently held that access to a healthful environment is a human right. The Washington legislature agrees that the right to a healthful environment is “fundamental and inalienable,” but the courts in Washington State say that doesn’t matter and in spite of this “fundamental and inalienable right,” the political branches can continue energy and transportation policies that cause climate change.
The fight still continues, and we are heartened that elsewhere the voices of young people are being taken seriously. In Montana, a similar lawsuit is preparing for trial. There, 16 youth plaintiffs who are suing the state for violating their constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment secured a critical victory after Judge Kathy Seeley denied the state’s attempts to prevent their case, Held v. State of Montana, from proceeding.
On the federal level, a motion that’s pending in U.S. District Court could put Juliana v. United States on the path to trial as well.
Those who care about the planet’s future — and the future of younger generations and those yet to come — haven’t given up and won’t be deterred by the roadblocks put up by the Washington Supreme Court. We only hope that there will be more and more justices and judges like González, Whitener and Seeley before it’s too late.
Wren Wagenbach and India Briggs, both 20, are Washington residents and plaintiffs in Aji P. v. State of Washington. They will continue their fight against the climate crisis.
Read more of the Oct. 20-26, 2021 issue.