Climate Youth in the Courts: Victory in Ontario, dismissal in Canadian court, and an appeal to the Supreme Court of Norway

The Environmental Law Centre of Alberta has been monitoring climate litigation cases worldwide, but events have overtaken their latest summary blog Climate Litigation in Canada and Beyond –Where Are We in 2020?  (Nov. 9) , which discusses the dismissal of the LaRose case in the Federal Court of Canada (more on that below). On November 12, Justice Carole Brown of the Superior Court of Ontario issued a landmark decision , allowing the case of Mathur et al.  to proceed to trial under Canada’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.  The case is thoroughly described in a Backgrounder from the Ecojustice, who represent the seven youth. Their claim is that their rights were violated when the Ontario government under Doug Ford  passed the Cap and Trade Cancellation Act in 2018, weakening GHG emissions reduction targets for the province. According to Ecojustice, “The lawsuit aims to strike down Ontario’s current 2030 target as unconstitutional and enshrine the right to a safe, healthy climate as part of the right to life, liberty and security of the person in Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This would require the Government of Ontario to set a new target in line with the scientific consensus, and revise its policies accordingly.”  The decision to allow the case to proceed is a first for Canada.

Federal Court of Canada dismisses an earlier youth-led case, LaRose vs. Her Majesty the Queen

On October 27, Justice Michael D. Manson of the Federal Court of Canada dismissed the case of LaRose vs. Her Majesty the Queen, and in the words of law professor Jason MacLean, slammed the door on big, “holy grail” climate cases in Canada. The LaRose case was filed in 2019 by 15 youth who used the Public Trust doctrine under section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to argue that the federal government is violating their rights to life, liberty and security of the person, and failing to protect essential public trust resources. Further, they call on section 15 of the Charter regarding equality, alleging that  youth are disproportionately affected by the effects of the climate emergency.  Although Justice Manson agreed that “the negative impact of climate change to the Plaintiffs and all Canadians is significant, both now and looking forward into the future,” he declined to allow the case to proceed because the questions raised “are so political that the Courts are incapable or unsuited to deal with them.” Lawyers for the case will appeal.  The legal organizations supporting the LaRose case reacted to the decision: the Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation (CELL) here , and U.S.-based Our Children’s Trust here . Our Children’s Trust also maintains a timeline and compilation of documents here.

The LaRose case was summarized in “Kids facing effects of climate change are taking their governments to court” in The Conversation (Nov. 2019), with an explanation of the public trust doctrine.  After the decision, a brief summary appeared in  “Federal judge tosses youth climate case against Ottawa” (National Observer, Oct. 27). In  “Why the youth climate court case failed and what’s next for Canadian climate policy” (The Conversation, Nov. 3) Jason MacLean, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of New Brunswick, summarizes the case and concludes that the federal court’s decision “slams the door”, but also looks for broader hope in the prospects for more specific, smaller climate cases – referring to “The Unsexy Future of Climate Litigation” (Journal of Environmental Law, 2018) for his framework, and citing the current example of the Grassy Mountain coal mine project in Alberta as an example of such a specific case.

Previous attempts by Canadian youth to fight for climate rights in courts include ENvironnement JEUnesse, which is currently under appeal after being denied the right to proceed by the Quebec Superior Court in 2019 .

Rebellion is a new documentary episode by The Nature of Things, a flagship production of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It profiles some of the youth involved in the Canadian court fights.

Youth in Norway take their climate case to the Supreme Court

In a case known as People vs. Arctic Oil , Young Friends of the Earth Norway (also known as Nature and Youth) have challenged their government’s 2016 decision to license oil drilling in the Barents Sea of the Arctic. Their challenge, now before the Supreme Court of Norway in November, is being described by Greenpeace Norway (a co-plaintiff),  as internationally precedent-setting, potentially as important as the Urgenda decision in the Netherlands. The New York Times reported on November 5  that it is  being called “the case of the century” in the Norwegian press. The court case finished in mid-November, with a decision expected in early 2021.

The Sabin Center Climate Case Litigation Database offers an archive of all official documents in the Norwegian case, and  Greenpeace Norway provides a chronology and a layman’s summary of the case decisions in English.  The Greenpeace website also provides the new information that the government’s decision to issue oil licenses was based on incorrect economic analysis and that  “Ministry of Petroleum and Energy has been sitting on updated calculations they did not present to the Parliament, which shows that the profitability of the oil fields is questionable.”    

Youth continue their slow battle through the courts for a livable climate: Updates for Environnement Jeunesse and Juliana

On June 6, lawyers presented an application to the Superior Court of Quebec on behalf of  ENvironnement JEUnesse . The application seeks authorization to bring a class action against the Canadian government on behalf of Quebeckers aged 35 and under, on the grounds that the government is infringing on their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms  by inadequate action to prevent climate change .  ENvironnement JEUnesse is asking the Court to order the government to implement a greenhouse gas reduction target and the measures necessary to respect the group members’ fundamental rights, and to pay an amount equivalent to $100 per member of the class action. The application suggests that the money, an estimated $340 million, could be invested measures to address the climate crisis.  The Court is now considering the application, with no date given for an expected decision.

The path to climate justice is intergenerational”  is an Opinion piece co-authored by a member of ENvironnement JEUnesse, appearing in the Montreal Gazette. It puts the ENvironnement JEUnesse case in the context of the worldwide Fridays for Future movement, and the Intergenerational Climate Coalition in Canada.  The ENvironnement JEUnesse website  provides French and English documentation and a timeline, as well as a summary of related cases, such as the Urgenda case of the Netherlands and the Juliana case in the U.S. . The best summary appears in the National Observer.  A Canadian Press article,  “Young Quebecers present arguments seeking class action against Ottawa”  appeared in the Montreal  Gazette on June 6 and incorrectly states that this is the first such case in the world by young people – an error which coincides with the latest court appearance on June 4  by the most famous young people’s suit, the  Juliana case.

Juliana vs. United States Government:  In the case  Juliana vs. United States, lawyers for children and young adults in the U.S. rely on the public trust doctrine,  accusing the federal government of violating their constitutional rights by failing to take action on climate change and continuing to promote and subsidize fossil fuels. The case originated in 2015 against the Obama government, and continues under the more hostile Trump administration, which argues that court doesn’t have the authority to order the political branches of government to act. Juliana has been called “the trial of the century” and is expected to be precedent-setting – accordingly, it is moving glacially and judges are being cautious, with no date set for a decision.  On June 4, one of the three judges, Judge Andrew Hurwitz stated, “You present compelling evidence that we have a real problem. You present compelling evidence that we have inaction by the other two branches of government. It may even rise to the level of criminal neglect. But the tough question for me is do we get to act because of that.”

Reports of the June 4 appearance are in the New York Times in “Judges give both sides a grilling in Youth Climate Case Against the Government” (June 4); “Ninth Circuit judges seem skeptical of role in kids climate  suit vs U.S. government in Climate Liability Newsand “Kids Face Rising Health Risks from Climate Change, Doctors Warn as Juliana Case Returns to Court” in Inside Climate News (June 4) . An historical summary appears in  “Question of the century: do we have a right to a livable climate?” in Resilience.

The case is being argued by Our Children’s Trust , which has compiled news and detailed documentation over the four years spent so far.