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If the environment isn't the government's responsibility, whose is it?

In a recent decision by the Supreme Court, our ability as students to call for change and have direct impact on environmental issues was upheld. This past Friday, the Supreme Court denied the Trump administration’s request to dismiss the Juliana vs. United States case. This case, brought by plaintiffs ranging from 10 to 21 years of age, alleges that the federal government has harmed living conditions for the citizens of Oregon by permitting the burning of fossil fuels, despite knowing what the negative effects would be. The plaintiffs have reasonably argued that the government’s prioritization of the fossil fuel industry over the environment is a direct violation of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as these rights become less accessible in a declining environment. The federal government should respond to these demands by combating climate change through further regulations on the fossil fuel industry. 

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have responded by claiming that there is no legally precedented right to live in a clean environment. Further, the government has claimed that the suit calls for an unreasonable overhaul of the American energy system at the hand of the federal government, and worse, one that is demanded by a group of “21 children and youth” instead of higher authorities. They may be correct in stating that there is no legal precedent in the constitution for a right to a clean environment, but that can be explained by the fact that climate change sped up during the industrial revolution — after the Constitution was written. The founding fathers likely did not foresee oil rigs or cars when they sat down at the Philadelphia Convention. I am calling for courts to recognize this when further deliberation of Juliana occurs, forcing the federal government to put its citizens’ interests over the interests of big oil.


The relationship between the lobbyists and the federal government is not one-sided, as the two must work together to come to agreements regarding policy and regulations. Just as the lobbyists can influence the government, the government can regulate the industry; perhaps this can be done in a way that is mutually beneficial through government subsidization or international trade support. Juliana does not call for the federal government to radically change their mode of action — rather, because the plaintiffs see the government’s current mode simply as inactivity, it calls for the government to create new regulations on a relatively unrestrained industry. This is especially true given that the Trump administration is in the process of rolling back many Environmental Protection Agency regulations, including the Clean Power Act that serves to regulate carbon emissions from power plants and a crucial requirement that oil and gas companies report methane leaks.

The federal government should recognize that it is every citizen’s right to reside in a healthy and sustainable environment. As college students, we are a part of that demographic of “21 children and youth”, demanding more consideration of the environment from our government is entirely reasonable, as we will directly experience the effects of an unregulated fossil fuel industry in the upcoming decades. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are being violated by the terrifying environmental changes we are facing. For one, the emission of PM2.5 from fossil fuels has a direct impact on human respiratory and cardiovascular health, and even more long-term impacts on overall health. It is reasonable to characterize these impacts as a violation of the right to life and pursuit of happiness, when both would be difficult to achieve with severe health issues. 

The response by both the Trump and Obama administrations begs the following question —  if it is unreasonable for the federal government to carry out the changes necessary to slow climate change, then into whose domain does this task fall? Some would argue that it is up to the state governments to regulate the fossil fuel industry, rather than the federal government. Though state administrations can attempt to mitigate some of the local effects of the fossil fuel industry, systematic change in the how the industry functions and what it prioritizes will not occur until national organizations, such as the EPA or National Institute of Health, step up to advocate for U.S. residents’ health and well-being. The same can be said to refute the idea that it is the responsibility of individuals to fight the negative effects of the fossil fuel industry. 

As residents of the United States, we can attempt to combat climate change through many small efforts, such as eating less meat, avoiding cars in favor of bicycles, and recycling correctly. Even so, our individual impact on the environment pales in comparison to that of the fossil fuel industry. To combat that impact, a much more powerful force is necessary: this is where the federal government should step up. Of course, this may prove to be difficult given the fossil fuel industry’s influence on the government: fossil fuel lobbyists spent $370 million from 2000 to 2016 alone. This is ten times more than environmental advocate lobbyist groups spent in the same period. Without the same monetary access to influence over the federal government, residents (like the plaintiffs of Juliana) cannot be expected to combat the environmental impact. 

The Supreme Court’s refusal to dismiss Juliana vs. United States represents a recognition that the federal government should step up to prioritize the constitutional right to health and well-being through combating environmental pollution, regardless of what the fossil fuel lobby might think.

Morgan Lucey is a senior neuroscience major from Scottsdale, Ariz. She can be reached at