Our Children’s Trust: progress on building trust with future generations

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Kelsey

Kelsey Juliana, one of the plaintiffs in Oregon’s Atmospheric Trust Litigation through Our Children’s Trust

With the imminent release of our Trust volume, we’ll be revisiting the theme of “trust” here on our Whole Terrain blog, including interviews with our authors and artists as well as a few trust-related posts we’ve been storing up to coincide with this release.

First, a timely update regarding the work of Our Children’s Trust: on April 8, 2016, a judge in Eugene, OR decided in favor of the youth plaintiffs who brought a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming a breech of trust in the use of our nation’s natural resources, which will adversely impact the lives of today’s young people. This lawsuit is based largely on the thinking of Mary Wood, an author and law professor we had the pleasure to interview last year. The hatch of lawsuits, of which the Oregon case was the first, is called Atmospheric Trust Litigation (ATL), and focuses mainly on the natural resource of the atmosphere. Cases are filed in every state in the United States as well as some other countries.

OurChildren'sTrustIn his April 8 decision, Judge Thomas Coffin referred to “carbon pollution of the atmosphere, climate destabilization, and ocean acidification” as important realities caused by human choices, and he ruled that this lawsuit can move forward in order to prove whether the government can be held responsible for breaches of trust on this matter (Our Children’s Trust press release, April 8, 2016). Although this decision is not a ruling on whether or not the government can be held accountable for the harm done to the atmosphere, it is a crucial step forward for the ATL suits. To provide some context for this decision, here is a brief history of the lawsuit so far. The original complaint was filed five years ago, in May 2011, and the State of Oregon brought a motion to dismiss in January 2012. This dismissal was granted in April 2012, and Our Children’s Trust followed up with an appeal, which was granted by the Oregon Court of Appeals in June 2014. The appeals court ruled that the county court “must decide whether the atmosphere is a public trust resource that the state of Oregon, as a trustee, has a duty to protect along with recognized public trust assets such as estuaries, rivers, and wildlife” (Our Children’s Trust press release, January 9, 2015). The county decided against the idea that the atmosphere was a public trust in May 2015, and Our Children’s Trust appealed this ruling in July, which brings us to the current decision, stating that yes, the atmosphere should be considered a public trust (though again, this does not mean that the case is over, as it has yet to be decided whether the government is responsible for the damage done).

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Youth plaintiffs celebrate their win

This is an exciting development. If we imagine natural resources as a trust we hold with future generations, how might we view our actions and our policies differently than we do now? When I think of natural resources trusts, I think of both a “trust” in the legal sense and “trust” in the emotional sense: we are holding these assets in trust for our children’s generation, and for all the generations after them. Also, they must trust us to do so: they have no choice, especially since most of them have yet to be born. Can those future generations trust us, trust me, to hold these assets in trust for them? Or will we continue to break that trust with them, using up more than can be easily replenished? When I look at my resource use from this perspective, from the perspective of whether or not I am being trustworthy, it provides a perspective shift that goes beyond the question of whether one of my contemporaries or I myself will get access to a particular resource. Instead of invoking greed and fear, it invokes humility, expansiveness, and connection across time.

The plaintiffs were all under 18 when the lawsuits began. One of the plaintiffs, Kelsey Juliana, now in college, spent a summer walking across the country in preparation for the People’s Climate March in 2015. She appeared on Bill Moyers to share her story:

To learn more about the Atmospheric Trust Litigation suits, check out the website of Our Children’s Trust, where you can find out about legal actions taking place in your own state or country.

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