March 8, 2019

Chair Deborah Kafoury on Friday announced Multnomah County has petitioned to be a friend of the court in a long-running lawsuit on climate change that’s pitting Oregon teens against the state they call home.

Climate change plaintiff Kelsey Juliana called Oregon's climate change goals toothless

Also on Friday, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Chernaik v. Brownasked the Oregon Supreme Court to review the case. Multnomah County’s petition, if granted, would allow it to file briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the Chernaik plaintiffs.

“This case will have broad implications for current and future Oregonians and their health, prosperity and safety,’’ said Courtney Johnson, counsel for the plaintiffs and a staff attorney at Crag Law Center in Portland. “As we ask the Supreme Court to take review, the County’s participation helps show the Court how important this case is.”

By filing a petition, Multnomah County is putting its support behind the youth plaintiffs who sued the State of Oregon in 2011 for failing to protect the state’s public trust resources from climate change. By seeking to file a brief in support of the youths’ case, Multnomah County is one of the first governments in the country to publicly support both Chernaik v. Brown and a federal lawsuit on climate change also brought by young Oregonians and others, Juliana v. United States.

In Chernaik v. Brown, plaintiffs Kelsey Juliana, Olivia Chernaik and their guardians sued to enforce the state’s obligation under the public trust doctrine to protect Oregon’s atmosphere, water and wildlife from the effects of climate change, while also protecting the economic, recreational and aesthetic benefits that flow from the health of those resources.

“In Oregon we applaud ourselves for being climate friendly. But where’s the action?” Juliana said Friday during a news conference at the Multnomah Building.

The state has set lofty goals to reduce emissions, but without any meaningful enforcement of those carbon limits, the state continues to pump out carbon at an increasing rate. Noting she’s now been waging legal battles against the government for half of her life, Juliana said, “I know how important it is to have government advocates.”

Miko Vergun is suing the federal government to force action on climate change.
Miko Vergun is suing the federal government to force action on climate change.

The state case pivots on an archaic law that, according to plaintiffs, obligates the government to protect natural resources vital to the survival of human life.

“We believe government still carries this moral and legal authority,” Juliana said. “This is groundbreaking, and the truest form of bravery, this County recognizing the needs of young people and that now is the time to act.”

The Oregon Court of Appeals in January ruled that Oregon has no duty to protect its natural resources.

“This decision is simply inconsistent with longstanding legal doctrine and common law,’’ Chair Kafoury said. “Those of us at the County believe that sovereign governments do have a duty, morally and legally, to protect natural resources, particularly in light of the climate crisis.‘’

In the federal case, 21 youths including Juliana assert that the federal government — because of its actions directly creating climate change — is depriving them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property while also failing to protect essential public trust resources. That case is currently before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chair Kafoury invited Juliana from the state and federal cases; Miko and Isaac Vergun from the federal case; and area high school students Bella Klosterman, Jeremy and Noah Clark, and Ethan Eisner to discuss their concerns for their future Friday.

Youth advocates and plaintiffs of climate lawsuits gather for a selfie March 8.
Youth advocates and plaintiffs of climate lawsuits gather for a selfie March 8.

Miko Vergun said she recently visited the Marshall Islands for the first time since her adoption by an Oregon family. She visited a fourth-grade classroom while there and talked to the kids about climate change. Afterward, the teacher asked the class what they thought would happen to them when the sea level rises.

“We would all die,” they said.

Vergun was raised to be an advocate, to educate others on climate change and to speak out.

“It’s crazy that I’ve been a plaintiff on this case since my freshman year in high school, and we have to advocate for something as basic as our own human rights,” she said.

Bella Klosterman, a senior at Lincoln High School and a member of the Portland Youth Climate Council, asked youth around the region to join her and others in a global Climate Strike on March 15.

“The government might not be prepared for what is going to come from us, and the passion and conviction we have for our future,” she said. “It’s such a critical time for us to be taking action. I encourage all youth who feel worries scared or angry to join the movement.”

[download high resolution images here.]