Youth climate-change lawsuit: We have a right to grow to adulthood safely

By: - January 3, 2020 7:00 am

Eight young Floridians allege the state of Florida is violating their “right” to a habitable climate. Lead plaintiff Delaney Reynolds is at center. Photo:

Eight Florida teenagers and children are suing the state of Florida for protection against climate change, saying they have a fundamental right to grow up in a healthy atmosphere.

Motions in the case will be heard in court Wednesday in Tallahassee, more than a year and a half after the youths filed the lawsuit in April 2018.

The young plaintiffs argue they have a “fundamental right to a stable climate system capable of sustaining human life” and that they each have been injured by effects of climate change, including sea-level rise and inland flooding.

University of Miami marine-science major Delaney Reynolds, the lead plaintiff, helped launch the case while still in high school.

“Logic and common sense tell us that if we continue to pump carbon pollution into our oceans and atmosphere, temperatures will continue to rise,” Reynolds says in her blog on “Unless and until we remove carbon-emitting products from our daily lives –coal, gasoline and so forth – and rapidly shift to sustainable solutions, then this problem will only get worse and worse.”

Reynolds and other plaintiffs accuse Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and other elected and appointed state leaders of failing to take action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing rapid climate change. Those changes, including sea-level rise, are impacting the plaintiffs personally.

They are joined by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Reef Relief, the Izaak Walton League of America Florida Keys Chapter, and the Florida Council of Churches, all of which filed briefs, as friends of the court, in support of the young people’s claims.

Along with DeSantis, the defendants are Nikki Fried, commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, and the Public Service Commission.

The original lawsuit named former Gov. Rick Scott and former Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, but they no longer hold those offices.

The defendants have asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Reynolds and the seven other plaintiffs allege: “They bring this action on behalf of themselves because climate change and the fossil fuel-based energy system created and operated by the defendants does not and cannot ensure that plaintiffs will grow to adulthood safely and enjoy the rights, benefits and privileges of current generations of Floridians.”

In their motion to dismiss, DeSantis and Fried say the young plaintiffs have no fundamental legal right to a healthy climate and that the state has no legal mandate to protect the atmosphere.

“Their asserted right to a stable, habitable climate is not deeply entrenched in our nation’s history,” the motion says. “There is no need to address whether the government created the alleged climate danger and therefore has an affirmative obligation to take actions to protect plaintiff’s alleged liberty interest.”

In a separate motion to dismiss, DEP and the Board of Trustees argue the court does not have proper jurisdiction and that they do not have legal authority to do what the plaintiffs want.

“Plaintiffs should be required to pursue their position through the political process and to the extent possible, the administrative realm,” says the DEP/BOT motion.

They say Florida lawmakers could mandate greenhouse-gas emission reductions if they wanted to, but they don’t. For example, they cite the Legislature’s adoption in 2008 of the Florida Climate Protection Act, which was not implemented, and then repealed in 2012.

“Regardless of one’s opinion on the underlying questions, the Legislature has not elected at this time to pursue the course of action desired by plaintiffs,” says the DEP/BOT motion to dismiss. “In short, if the Florida Legislature wished to condemn the petroleum industry, it has known how to do so. For better or worse, it has considered the matter and has elected not to do so.”

Petroleum is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

The lawsuit is one of many pending in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.

Details about those and other cases are presented at Our Children’s Trust. A federal case, Juliana v. United States,­ is pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the West Coast.

Pending motions in Reynolds v. Florida will be heard by Circuit Judge Kevin J. Carroll, in the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in Northern Florida.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]