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Judge Rejects Climate Suit to Establish 'Right to Wilderness'

Oregon District Court Judge Michael McShane on July 31st rejected a petition by two nonprofit groups—Animal Legal Defense Fund and Seeding Sovereignty—and six individuals who allege the U.S. government’s failure to combat climate change violates their constitutional right to a safe and sustainable environment. Plaintiffs claim climate change is damaging the health, beauty, and accessibility of wilderness areas. They ask the Court to order federal agencies to protect their “constitutional right to wilderness” by phasing out fossil fuel extraction, animal agriculture, and logging of old-growth forests.

The Judge tossed out the suit on two main grounds. First, petitioners lack standing to sue. To have standing, plaintiffs must not only show they have suffered an “injury-in-fact” but also that the injury is “concrete and particularized” rather than a “generalized grievance.” However, plaintiffs’ “allegations are, by their very nature, generalized grievances.” Indeed, even if there were a recognized constitutional right to wilderness, “it would necessarily be a right held in common by all citizens, and the effects of climate change would be an abstract injury that all citizens share.”

The Judge also rejected the petition because lower courts are not the proper forum for engaging in what plaintiffs call “revolutionary thinking.” The Judge thus declined to create a new fundamental “right of wilderness” that is not enumerated in the Constitution or found in Supreme Court precedent. In this connection, the Judge cites more than a dozen cases establishing that “there is no fundamental right to a particular type of environment or environmental conditions.”