California kids sue EPA for not protecting them from climate change

Long Beach teen Genesis experienced symptoms of heat exhaustion when temperatures spiked in July, and she’s dealt with headaches and allergies due to wildfire smoke multiple times in her 17 years.

Emma, 16 of La Jolla, was diagnosed with asthma this summer and regularly suffers from climate-related anxiety.

Maryam of Santa Monica sometimes struggles to wear her hijab due to increasingly common heat waves and had to cancel her 13th birthday party this summer when Southern California experienced its first tropical storm warning in several decades.

These three are among 18 young people, ranging in age from 8 to 17, who are suing the Environmental Protection Agency for violating their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection by failing to safeguard them from the impacts of climate change. (Their last names are being withheld because they’re minors.) Half of the plaintiffs in Genesis B. v. United States Environmental Protection Agency are from Southern California, including three from Los Angeles, one from Garden Grove, one from Fullerton and one from Santa Clarita.

The goal is to get the EPA to stop permitting any new fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States, the team behind the case said. They argue that burning those fuels is causing climate change that’s disproportionately impacting young people who have limited options for fighting back.

“I hope we win for my generation as well as for all future generations because we all deserve a thriving planet to live on,” Genesis said in an emailed comment. “I hope the EPA will be held accountable and as a result, will begin to hold all polluters accountable so we can start to heal the planet and slow down the climate crisis.”

The lawsuit is the latest example of young people suing state and federal governments over climate change issues, with many cases — including this one — spearheaded by the Oregon-based nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust.

Plaintiffs listen to arguments during a status hearing on May 12, 2023, in Helena, Mont., for a case that they and other Montana youth filed against the state arguing Montana officials are not meeting their constitutional obligations to protect residents from climate change. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP) 

The group was behind Juliana v. United States, a broader federal case featured in the 2020 documentary “Youth v. Gov.” now streaming on Netflix. That case may go to trial this spring.

Our Children’s Trust also brought the first constitutional climate trial in U.S. history, Held v. State of Montana, which took place in June. A judge issued a landmark ruling in August that declared the state’s fossil fuel-favoring laws to be unconstitutional. If that ruling withstands an appeal, it’ll require Montana to take climate change into consideration when weighing future oil and gas projects. Similar cases are pending in Hawaii, Utah and Virginia.

While kids are uniquely vulnerable to climate pollution, such suits argue, they have no voice in the system since they can’t vote. And by the time they can vote they will have experienced 18 years of harm. That’s why Catherine Smith, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust, said courts “must serve as a constitutional backstop” when “the legislative and executive branches have breached their obligation.”

The 105-page lawsuit filed this weekend in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California claims the EPA “intentionally allows life-threatening climate pollution to be emitted by the fossil fuel sources of greenhouse gases it regulates,” such as vehicles and power plants, “despite knowing the harm it causes to children’s health and welfare.” The case also names EPA Administrator Michael Regan and the United States federal government as defendants.

The suit targets the EPA because it’s “the single agency within the federal government that Congress has given authority to to protect air quality and control pollution,” noted Julia Olson, chief legal counsel for Our Children’s Trust.

“It’s really the agency that …  has the mandate to restrict pollution in order to protect health and safety, and in particular children’s health. And it’s used that authority to allow all of this pollution, knowing that it was harming children most.”

Letting such emissions continue poses health risks from the time children are in the womb, where pollution can cause low birth weight and other issues, to when they’re teens and face increased rates of asthma, exposure to disease-carrying insects, heat exhaustion and more, the lawsuit claims. Such life-threatening harms have been documented for decades and pose the greatest risks for young people, and Olson noted that the risks are particularly high in Southern California.

Dani, 17 of Santa Clarita, missed 15 days of school in 2021 after wildfire smoke and poor air quality caused severe allergies that triggered migraines, shakes and congestion.

Brothers Zubayr, 11, and Muaawiyah, 16, live in a Los Angeles apartment located near several oil and gas wells. In 2021, a leak in those systems prompted a nearby park to be closed to the public. The brothers also have experienced an increase of mosquitos in their community, a trend is expected to become more common as climate change shifts disease-carrying insects further from the equator. In 2022, Zubayr developed a staph infection from a mosquito bite and had to receive medical treatment.

Worsening climate change also has deprived these children of schooling, the suit states, with campuses closed due to wildfires. The suit claims the worsening climate makes it harder for kids to observe cultural and religious traditions, has displaced them from their homes, hurt their mental health and posed economic harms to their families. The suit also argues that the plaintiffs will be harmed as they grow older, in part by threatening to limit their ability to live where they want, travel and start families.

Maya, 17 of Los Angeles, started experiencing anxiety in 2020, which has risen to the level of panic attacks as she’s learned about the effects of climate change. “She feels like she has been robbed of the bright future adults promised her as she was growing up,” the suit states.