For the last eight years, we have represented two courageous youth from Eugene, Oregon – Ollie Chernaik and Kelsey Juliana – who are both concerned that the State of Oregon is actively contributing to 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
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.
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.
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.
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. Our Children’s Trust, the Western Environmental Law Center, and the League of Women Voters of Oregon.