The Guardian, 22 December 2015


Vandana Shiva, Hunter Lovins and other campaigners call on governments to create a global trust that would sue polluters for damaging the atmosphere

It’s not every day you hear about a group of teenagers taking on a government department in the name of climate change, but that’s exactly what happened in Washington State. What’s more, the teens won.

The eight young people aged eight to 18 brought a suit against the Washington State Department of Ecology, seeking a carbon emissions rule that protects the atmosphere for their generation and those to come.

Their initial requests made in June 2014 were denied. After various back and forths, the case was eventually argued last month in front of Superior Court Judge Hollis R Hill, who subsequently ruled (pdf) that the government has “a constitutional obligation to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people”.

Public trust doctrine

This is not the only example of such an approach gaining traction in recent months. In March, a court in New Mexico recognised (pdf) that the state has a duty to protect New Mexico’s natural resources, including the atmosphere, for the benefit of the state’s residents. In June, a court in the Netherlands ordered the Dutch government to cut the country’s emissions by at least 25% within five years.

In each case, the public trust doctrine was used to establish community property rights over the atmospheric commons. It is any government’s responsibility, as trustee, to protect these assets from harm and maintain them for public use. Importantly, such assets cannot be given away, or sold off to private parties.