By Fredrik Albritton Jonsson
Despite garnering strong support from many groups in civil society, Juliana v. US has not been successful so far. Even though dangerous climate change is increasingly likely according to the IPCC, the American justice system has tended to see the issue as a political rather than a constitutional responsibility. Now, however, the plaintiffs are pushing to resurrect the case—petitioning the Department of Justice to allow them to amend their complaint, which would let them proceed to trial. Their petition is supported by congressional letters led by Senator Merkley and Representative Jones and by an organizational letter, shown below, signed by 167 environmental organizations including EDGI. Those letters were sent Thursday, November 18, 2021.
EDGI’s Environmental Historians Action Collaborative formed as a result of early involvement with the Juliana case. In the winter of 2019, Mark Fiege, the Wallace Stegner Chair of Western American studies and environmental history at Montana State University, got a call from attorney Rachael Osborn asking if he could help put together an amicus brief for Juliana v. US. Twenty-one children and teenagers had brought a lawsuit in 2015 against the federal government for violating young people’s right to life, liberty, and property and for failing to protect the public trust. A number of supporters were filing amicus briefs. Could Mark organize a deposition to explain how historians saw the climate crisis and why they supported the lawsuit? I will never forget Mark’s excitement when he got in touch to explain the project. After years of laboring in the archives as the planet was burning, here was a chance to actually put historical knowledge to use. With the help of Mark’s dissertation student Will Wight, we drafted a brief and circulated it to colleagues for feedback. We settled on a simple argument: Since the founding of the United States, leading thinkers and politicians have posited a “stable environment as the foundation of political action.” Although the image of the nation has changed greatly over time, it has always included a sense of natural abundance as the condition of human flourishing. The rights to life, liberty and property presuppose a benign natural world and, above all, a stable climate.
As the climate crisis deepens, historians need to take action. Following the filing of this original amicus brief, we formed EHAC, which is now one of EDGI’s working groups. EHAC first came together out of a commonly felt frustration we had as historians who didn’t see obvious pathways to professional climate action. EHAC offers a platform to help fellow historians mobilize public opinion and action. Since the original amicus brief, we have collectively annotated political speeches, written op-eds and public comments, advocated for and supported climate change pedagogy, and promoted other projects at EDGI, like A People’s EPA, which collects oral histories and FOIA document, analyses EPA history here. Through collective writing and collaboration, EHAC members are learning to transcend the limitations that have made activism difficult for historians.
In the midst of planetary crisis, we are beginning to see signs of genuine cultural and political change—new kinds of long-term thinking, new forms of intergenerational bonds, new ways of articulating our essential dependence on the non-human. EHAC believes that historians have a vital role to play in this fight. We can bear witness to the resilience and resistance of past societies in the face of environmental peril. We can uncover alternative forms of human flourishing that point the way to the world after fossil fuel capitalism. We can add a sense of social and ecological complexity and pluralism to the models of earth system science. Precisely because the existential danger of climate change is so wide-ranging and so grave, we need to learn how to mobilize on many fronts. The battle now extends to all corners of the fossil fuel burning world. And precisely because the crisis is so grave, new doors are opening for radical thought and action.
READ THE ORGANIZATIONAL LETTER TO THE DOJ: The full text of the letter in support of the Juliana plaintiffs petition to the Department of Justice is below.Organizational-Letter-to-the-DOJ-Supporting-Juliana-v-US_2021.11.18_PUBLIC-Google-Docs