Catholic groups follow Pope Francis’ lead, weigh in on climate suit

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Last year, the New Mexico Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling against a teen who sued Governor Susana Martinez and the state of New Mexico for not doing enough to tackle climate change.

Now, two organizations representing more than 250 Catholic groups and 40,000 religious women worldwide are intervening in a similar suit currently making its way through federal court in Oregon. The two suits are part of a broader effort coordinated by the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust.

Earlier this month, attorneys for the Global Catholic Climate Movement and the Leadership Council of Women Religious filed an amicus brief in support of teen plaintiffs, including Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana and Xiuhtezcatl Tonathiuh.

In the Climate Law Blog from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, Jessica Wentz writes that the Oregon plaintiffs are trying to hold President Obama and the federal government responsible for “continued fossil fuel exploitation.” By not acting to curb emissions, despite knowledge of how the burning of fossil fuels affects the planet’s climate, the lawsuit asks whether the federal government “has a constitutional responsibility to leave a viable climate system for future generations?”

According to the January 15, 2016 amicus brief filed on behalf of the religious organizations:

When lawsuits have touched upon central Roman Catholic tenets like these, Catholic organizations have filed amicus curiae briefs to make their views clear. This is such a suit. This litigation seeks to establish precisely what Pope Francis has urged in Laudato Si’: a “legal framework which can set clear boundaries” for greenhouse gas reduction—before it is too late.

Moreover, in raising the public trust doctrine, plaintiffs invoke the same moral imperative that motivates the GCCM and LCWR. The public trust principle of law mirrors a sacred trust based on deep covenants of obligation towards future generations and to all Creation. Pope Francis described a sacred trust when he said, “Creation is not some possession that we can lord over for our own pleasure; nor even less, is it the property of only some people . . . . [C]reation is the marvelous gift that God has given us, so that we will take care of it and harness it for the benefit of all.” The foundational U.S. Supreme Court public trust cases hold that government has no authority to substantially impair or alienate resources crucial to the public welfare. The Nation’s public trust over these resources remains an attribute of sovereignty that government cannot shed. At a time when the climate crisis threatens the future survival of civilization, the principle could hardly have a more compelling application.

With the suit Akilah Sanders-Reed brought against Martinez and the New Mexico state government, the teen and her attorneys were asking the state to uphold its public trust duty to protect the atmosphere. Failure to do so, the plaintiffs said, was a break of its public trust duty.

In their March 2015 decision, New Mexico Appeals Court Judges Timothy Garcia and Michael E. Vigil and Chief Judge J. Miles Hanisee concluded that courts cannot independently intervene to force the state to regulate greenhouse gases as it pertains to the state’s public trust duties.

The state’s Air Quality Control Act, they wrote, has adequate procedures to address the issue—procedures that the public is already allowed to participate in before the state’s Environmental Improvement Board.

As NMID reported last year, many communities of faith—including the Catholic Church—have become increasingly involved in climate activism.


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