Tuesday marked a key moment for the landmark climate change lawsuit brought against the U.S. government by a group of young Americans, including one from Fairbanks.

That case argues that the government has violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs by actively supporting a fossil fuels system that is destabilizing the climate. It was started by the nonprofit legal organization Our Children’s Trust.

Lawyers on both sides of the lawsuit — known as Juliana v. United States — made their case in front of three judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday in Portland, Oregon. The judges will decide if the lawsuit can go to trial.

The trial was supposed to start in a lower court in October, but that court granted the Trump administration a pretrial appeal.

Sean Hecht is an environmental law professor and the co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles. He said that pretrial appeals like this are extremely rare, but in this case, higher courts including the U.S. Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit had signaled support for it.

“The courts’ view of it is that the case is unusual enough and novel enough that it would be wise to resolve some of the legal uncertainty before trial rather than after trial,” he said.

Hecht said ultimately the 9th Circuit could allow the case to go to trial, or dismiss it. Whatever the result, either side could then petition the Supreme Court to take it up.

One of the plaintiffs in the case is 19-year-old Nathan Baring from Fairbanks, who attended the hearing. He said the challenge the case faces doesn’t impact his commitment to it.

“I want to be able to look back in my future and say that I put my best foot forward when it came to preserving this climate system that I’m going to rely on so much; that I already do,” he said.

It’s unknown when the 9th Circuit will make its decision. 

Alaska’s Energy Desk is a public media collaboration focused on energy and the environment with partners KTOO in Juneau, Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, KUCB in Unalaska, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Fairbanks, KBRW in Utqiagvik and KYUK in Bethel.

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