Oregon Youth Climate Case – Chernaik v. Brown

Since 2011, Crag has represented two courageous youth from Eugene, Oregon – Ollie Chernaik and Kelsey Juliana – who are both concerned that the State of Oregon is not doing enough to prevent the devastating effects of climate change. These two young people have bravely chosen to stand up for their generation and to ask that the courts step in where the other branches of government have failed. Concerned about rising sea levels, reduced snowpack and water supplies, drought, fire, and disease, they brought a case against the Governor of Oregon asserting that the State of Oregon has a legal obligation to protect the atmosphere, a public trust resource, by limiting greenhouse gas emissions. They contend the state has failed to fulfill its duty under the public trust doctrine to safeguard the atmosphere for future generations.
What's at Stake
Ollie and Kelsey are the voice of the next generation. Climate change threatens everything we love about Oregon from its world-class beaches and salmon rivers, to its old-growth forests, and its rich agricultural lands. Ollie and Kelsey are fighting to protect what so many Oregonians cherish about our beloved state.

The cornerstone of Chernaik v. Brown is that the state has a duty under the public trust doctrine to protect the atmosphere for the youth of today. They are calling on the courts to hold the other branches of government – and the generation that currently holds power – accountable for the dire situation they will otherwise pass on to our children. They are fighting for future Oregonians who don’t have a voice today, believing that everyone deserves clean air, clean water, and a healthy climate.

This case shares some features with Juliana v. U.S., the case brought by 21 youth against the U.S. government in the federal district court of Oregon. This case is distinct because it relies on Oregon’s laws and challenges the governor and the state’s failure to protect natural resources that all Oregonians depend on for our economy, recreation, and health.

The public trust doctrine adopted by the Oregon Supreme Court more than a century ago provides that the state holds certain natural resources in trust for the benefit of all Oregonians. For example, state waterways are held in trust for public uses such as navigation, recreation, and fisheries.

The state does not dispute that climate change is damaging Oregon’s natural resources and limiting the public’s use of those resources.

Although many Oregon cases have applied the public trust doctrine, the Oregon Supreme Court has never before been asked to declare whether that doctrine requires the state to protect shared resources from the destructive impacts of climate change.

Ollie and Kelsey are calling on the State of Oregon to develop and implement a climate recovery plan that puts Oregon on a path to a clean energy future. The Oregon Global Warming Commission has already developed many common sense solutions that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote economic growth and green jobs. The solutions are at hand, we just need to act. The future of Oregon is at stake. We are proud to represent some the most passionate individuals in fighting for our state and our planet.

History

In 2011, we led the youths’ climate change lawsuit, which asked the state to take action in restoring the atmosphere to 350 ppm of carbon dioxide by the end of the century. The two youth plaintiffs were initially told by the Lane County Circuit Court that the court did not have jurisdiction, climate change should be left only to the legislative and executive branches, and their case was dismissed.

On June 10, 2014, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned that decision, ruling that the children are entitled to their day in the court and ordering the lower court to declare their rights under the public trust doctrine.

 

Back before the circuit court, the judge once again ruled in favor of the state and against Kelsey and Ollie, questioning whether the atmosphere is a natural resource at all. Along with that, he also denied that water, fish, wildlife, beaches, shorelines are public trust resources. His opinion has come under heavy criticism, and we again sought review in the Oregon Court of Appeals.

In December 2016, we argued the case before the three-judge appellate panel, and on January 9, 2019, that court ruled that the common law public trust doctrine imposes no affirmative duty on the state to protect public trust resources like beaches, and declined to state which natural resources fall within the scope of the public trust, leaving the youth plaintiff’s questions unanswered.

in January 2019 the Court of Appeals issued a disappointing decision that would allow the state to sit back and allow the waters, wildlife, and other natural resources of the state to waste away in the face of climate change impacts.

Despite the setback to the case in early 2019, these youth are not done fighting. In response to the most recent ruling by the Court of Appeals, Ollie said: “I am saddened to hear the decision that has been made. For almost a decade I have been part of this case, and I am upset that it has taken us so long to move through the courthouse on an issue that will not wait. I am upset that the government won’t preserve all of our resources for future generations. I am upset that the Court of Appeals ruled in our favor before, but has not done so again. This is one fight of many, victory isn’t impossible because of one loss.”

On May 23, 2019, the Oregon Supreme Court granted the youth plaintiffs’ request to review a decision in youth-led climate lawsuit against the State of Oregon, Chernaik v. Brown. 

On July 31, 2019, Crag filed Kelsey and Ollie’s opening brief to the Supreme Court. The brief argues that the public trust doctrine is grounded in the people’s rights to shared essential natural resources and requires the state to protect those resources in trust for all Oregonians. Five other briefs from “friends of the court” were also filed in support of the youth’s case, representing Oregon legislators, Multnomah and Lane counties, businesses, conservation and justice organizations, faith groups, law professors, and the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association. The State will file its responsive brief in the first week of September, and the youth will have one final opportunity for a written reply before oral arguments on November 13 at David Douglas High School in East Portland. 

Crag Executive Director and staff attorney Courtney Johnson is lead counsel for the youth plaintiffs:

“This case will have broad implications for current and future Oregonians and their health, prosperity, and safety. As we ask the Supreme Court to take review, the County’s participation helps show the Court how important this case is.”

The youth plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to review, and ultimately reverse, the Court of Appeals decision. Multnomah County, 69 law professors, and over 50 individuals and organizations representing a wide variety of interests, including government, communities of color, public health, youth, faith, business, conservation, and education, filed amicus briefs supporting the youth and also asking the Supreme Court to review the case. Crag and our co-counsel Liam Sherlock will be drafting and filing our opening brief with the Court in June. The Court will issue the date and time for oral argument by June 6.

Kelsey Juliana, 23-year-old plaintiff from Eugene and also one of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the constitutional climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, said: 

“Today I am left feeling extremely optimistic. I hope that the Oregon Supreme Court will recognize that the climate crisis is here and hold the State accountable to its role in preventing the worst impacts of climate change before it’s too late.” 

Courtney Johnson, Crag Executive Director and lead counsel for the youth plaintiffs said: 

“We are thrilled that the state’s highest court has recognized the importance of this case and the need to clarify the role of our state government in addressing climate change.” 

In its January 2019 decision, the Court of Appeals ruled that the common law public trust doctrine imposes no affirmative duty on the state to protect public trust resources like beaches. The court declined to state which natural resources fall within the scope of the public trust, leaving much of the youth plaintiffs’ questions unanswered. 

Team Effort
Kelsey, who on her last day of high school celebrated the ruling she was entitled to a day in court, said: “This decision makes me feel very proud to be an Oregonian. It validates the younger generation’s voice and lets us know that we are listened to and considered, and that our future matters. I’m so grateful to everyone who is working with me to achieve climate justice. We have a lot of work ahead, but I’m very hopeful, and I’m looking forward to having the merits of this case heard in court.”

Courtney Johnson is proudly leading our work on this case. Chris, our former Co-Executive Director, shared that “It has been an honor to work with Ollie and Kelsey to help elevate their voice. Our generation has a moral obligation to solve this problem on behalf of our kids and future generations. These youth are strong and courageous, and they are asking the courts to protect their futures where all other levels of government have failed.

We would like to thank our partners in this work, including Ollie and Kelsey and their wonderfully supportive families. Former staff attorney Tanya Sanerib and former Co-Executive Director Chris Winter argued the case and invested untold hours in this issue. Liam Sherlock from Hutchinson, Cox, Coons, Orr &  Sherlock, P.C. serves as co-counsel. The case is one of many related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children’s Trust, and all seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system. Our Children’s Trust also supports the climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, which was brought by 21 youth plaintiffs, including Chernaik v. Brown plaintiff Kelsey Juliana.