Are Children’s Constitutional Rights Cases the Solution to Climate Justice?

Friday, May 12, 2023
  • The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
  • Use of this article or any portions thereof requires written permission of the author.


Ken Teegardin, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

There are several active climate change cases involving youth across the country alleging constitutional rights violations under federal and state constitutions. These cases are important because, just this year, the United States abstained in the United Nations resolution calling for the International Court of Justice to determine the legal obligation of countries to address climate change.[1] In its defense, the Biden administration asserted that its preferred action was domestic diplomacy, not the “international judicial process.”[2] If domestic diplomacy is the only route to asserting the federal government’s responsibility to address climate change, these climate cases brought by children may be critical in providing judicial oversight for the lack of actions taken by the government to reduce fossil fuel production.

Climate action is taken daily by youth across the nation, from hosting strikes and protests to initiating legal action. Zero Hour, a youth-led climate group, launched a campaign for children to add their names to a “Young People’s” amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in the first children’s climate change case, Juliana v. United States.[3] There were close to 32,000 people under the age of 25 who demonstrated support for the case via amicus briefs.[4] The groundswell of support from United States’ citizens may encourage the judiciary, or even Congress, to act effectively following these cases.

The non-profit organization Our Children's Trust filed a lawsuit on behalf of 21 children in 2015. The lawsuit claimed that the U.S. government has knowingly violated the children's Due Process rights by encouraging and permitting the combustion of fossil fuels.[5] In Juliana, the children based their argument on the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of life, liberty, and property—focusing mainly on “life.”[6] The plaintiffs filed for a preliminary injunction for new leases and mining permits for coal and offshore oil and gas exploration while the case was at trial.[7] The court ruled in favor of the U.S. government.

In the majority opinion, the court recognized the government’s role in the children’s injuries from climate change, and that the government is violating the youth’s constitutional rights, but it determined that the Executive and Legislative branches have the duty to handle the remedies requested by the children.[8] The court also held that the children did not have standing to bring this constitutional case and that their remedy was not within the jurisdiction of an Article III court.[9] In her dissent, Judge Staton said this was as if “an asteroid [was] barreling toward Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses.”[10]

The Biden Administration proposed two remedies following settlement discussions from Juliana: (1) Reverse the legal position of Trump’s Department of Justice to affirm that an Article III court does in fact have the authority to hear these cases, and (2) Engage in “meaningful settlement discussions” with the Juliana plaintiffs to “commit to science-based, durable climate remedies.”[11] After five months in settlement negotiations, there was no official resolution. Following the case though, Congress issued a resolution recognizing that the climate crisis is “disproportionately affecting the health, economic opportunity, and fundamental rights of children” and demanded a climate recovery plan that meets “necessary emissions reduction targets.”[12]

Juliana is not the only case that has been brought by children in the United States. Children in Florida sued the Florida legislature and governor for violating their "constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness” in Reynolds v. State of Florida.[13] The children further asserted that the government was “caus[ing] harm to Florida’s essential public trust resources, such as beaches, coral reefs, and marine life.[14] The children in Reynolds ultimately filed a petition for rulemaking which led to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' rulemaking for Chapter 50.5 of Florida’s Administrative Code[15] (“Renewable Energy”), Florida’s “most significant climate policy in over a decade.”[16]

Several other cases in Hawaii, Montana, Utah, and Virginia have asserted similar constitutional and public trust violations.[17] The Montana case, Held v. Montana, will be the first “youth-led climate case” to go to trial in the United States in June 2023.[18] The children, represented by Our Children’s Trust, are claiming a “right to a clean environment” under the State of Montana’s Constitution.[19]

Our Children’s Trust and American youth are approaching the issue of government responsibility for climate destruction from several angles. These innovative approaches might provide an avenue to holding the government accountable through judicial review in the absence of the United States’ involvement in international environmental law. According to U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken, she “[has] no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”[20] Children of the United States are relying on the judiciary to protect their constitutionally guaranteed rights. Although courts have thus far been reluctant to do so, in the future the judiciary may impose obligations for the government to effectively address climate change.


[1] Sara Schonhardt, U.N. seeks rare legal opinion on climate. The U.S. abstained., E&E News (Mar. 30, 2023),

[2] Id.

[3] Our Children’s Trust, Juliana v. US, (last visited Mar. 7, 2023).

[4] Id.

[5] Robinson Meyer, A Climate-Lawsuit Dissent That Changed My Mind, The Atlantic (Jan. 22, 2020),

[6] Id.

[7] Our Children’s Trust, Juliana v. US, (last visited Mar. 7, 2023).

[8] Juliana v. United States, 947 F.3d 1159, 1172 (9th Cir. 2020).

[9] Id. at 1168.

[10] Id. at 1175.

[11] Our Children’s Trust, Biden and the Department of Justice, (last

visited May 5, 2023).

[12] H.R. 31, 117th Cong. (2021).

[13] Our Children’s Trust, Reynolds v. State of Florida, (last visited Mar. 7, 2023).

[14] Id.

[15] The Florida Administrative Code is a compilation of the rules and regulations of Florida regulatory agencies.

[16] Our Children’s Trust, supra note 13.

[17] Our Children’s Trust, Navahine F. v. Hawai’I Department of Transportation, (last visited Mar. 7, 2023); Held v. State, Order on Motion to Dismiss (Aug. 4, 2021).

[18] Lesley Clark, Climate on Trial: Montana Youth Take on State Energy Policy, ClimateWire (Dec. 1, 2022),

[19] Id.

[20] Our Children’s Trust, Juliana v. US, (last visited Mar. 7, 2023). Judge Aiken stated this opinion when she denied the government’s motion to dismiss the case in 2016. This was the opinion where the case was approved for trial.