The atmosphere is a public trust

An Austin, Texas district judge has ruled that the Earth’s atmosphere is a public trust. The plaintiffs are teenagers who seek to force the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to regulate greenhouse gas emissions; and the case is part of a coordinated effort by the nonprofit groups Our Children’s Trust, iMatter, and WITNESS. Unfortunately, according to a report in the Austin Statesman, the ruling itself will likely have little effect.

From the joint press release (pdf):

The lawsuit is part of legal action in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and against the federal government on behalf of youth to compel reductions of CO2 emissions that will counter the negative impacts of climate change. The case relies upon the long established principle of the public trust doctrine, which requires all branches of government to protect and maintain certain shared resources fundamental for human health and survival.

From the ruling by Judge Gisela Triana (pdf):

The court will find that the Commission’s conclusion, that the public trust doctrine is exclusively limited to the conservation of water, is legally limited. The doctrine includes all natural resources of the State. This doctrine is not simply a common law doctrine but was incorporated into the Texas Constitution at Article XVI, Section 59, which states: “The conservation and development of all the natural resources of this State … and the preservation and conservation of all such natural resources of the State are each and all hereby declared public rights and duties; and the Legislature shall pass all such laws as may be appropriate thereto.”

From “Atmospheric Trust Litigation” by law professor Mary Wood (pdf):

The trust principle can be tapped as a source of governmental obligation that creates a macro approach designed to leave no orphan shares of responsibility. Viewed organically, the trust is a fundamental limit on sovereignty itself, arguably generic to all states and the federal government. …

The atmospheric trust approach characterizes the United States as a trustee, and each of the 50 states as co-trustees, of the atmosphere. All share the basic fundamental obligation to protect the asset for their present and future generations of citizens. Each agency or sub-jurisdiction of government is as agent of the trustee, held to the same fiduciary standards.

See also, in the Austin Statesman: “In suit, minors challenge Texas environmental agency

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