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Should the atmosphere be included in the public trust doctrine?

May 13, 2015

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

In December, the Supreme Court declined to review a case that pit five students against the federal government. The students’ suit hinged on the principle of the public trust doctrine, a legal notion that natural resources are preserved for use by the public and should be protected by the government. The students wanted the courts to order federal agencies to act to protect the atmosphere from climate change.

The public trust doctrine goes back to Roman times. The concept is based on the idea that the government is trusted by the public to maintain and adequately protect natural resources for the benefit of everyone. This has been interpreted through the centuries as the reasoning for governments to manage waterways for shipping and preserve natural wonders for the benefit of all. The public trust doctrine is considered to be one of the central principles of Western legal traditions.

The five students, who partnered with the nonprofit organization Our Children’s Trust, sued the government to act on air pollution, arguing that the atmosphere is part of the public trust. The suit would have required the federal government to take steps to preserve the atmosphere for future generations, repair past harms and prevent future damage. This has become known as “atmospheric trust litigation,” which Our Children’s Trust supports on behalf of young people.

The students’ argument took the concept of public trust doctrine a step further, raising a new concept of intergenerational justice. Intergenerational justice is the concept that the present generation cannot knowingly do something that would burden or harm future generations. Our Children’s Trust website says, “The Public Trust Doctrine embodies the international human rights principle of intergenerational justice, which simply means that current generations cannot continue on their destructive path and leave the planet damaged for future generations.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled earlier this year that there is no “federal constitutional foundation” for the suit.

According to the Supreme Court two years ago, “the public trust doctrine remains a matter of state law” since many of their constitutions contain language evoking the doctrine. While the Preamble to the Constitution outlines the document’s goals, including “promote the general Welfare,” the Supreme Court has ruled that the Preamble does not give certain powers to the federal government.

Atmospheric trust litigation has been filed on the state level, with lawsuits and petitions in New Mexico, Texas, Alaska, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the students that the atmosphere is part of the public trust? Can you think of any examples of a government asserting the public trust doctrine? Does the federal government have a duty under the public trust to protect the environment? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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The government should have the atmosphere in the public trust doctrine because it is the main reason we're alive. Without the atmosphere the earth wouldn't have bendable to hold in the oxygen that we breath. I believe that the atmosphere should be at the top of the doctrine.

Stroudsburg JHS
I think they shouldn't because the atmosphere is something that protect the O-Zone if the government made a change it would help because the O-Zone layer is disappearing because of us.

Rimas/Watertown High
Yes, the government needs to protect our environment or there will be nothing left. Our O-Zone is slowing disappearing because of people using polluted energy sources. If the government made a change to this then we would be able to stop global warming. It's a serious situation that everyone just keeps pushing off.

The atmosphere is part of the public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine provides the protection of natural resources by the federal government. The federal government does have the duty under the public trust to protect the enviornment. They should take care of this situation.

Mr. Hanna
As I feel as I agree with the students, I personally think the government should protect the environment of the public trust and as well as us citizens.

Stroudsburg, PA
Mr Hanna/Stroudsburg JHS
I believe the atmosphere is part of the public trust doctrine. The atmosphere is a natural resource and humanity could not exist without it. It keeps in the oxygen we breathe, provides protection from the suns harmful rays, protects us from objects coming toward earth, and helps regulate temperature. Under the public trust doctrine the governent is responsible for the maintenance and protection of the atmosphere and by intergenerational justice the government would have to take immediate steps to combat air pollution and to protect the atmosphere.

Mr. Hanna/ Stroudsburg jr high
I agree with the students that the atmosphere is a part of the public trust doctrine because it is a natural resource that is very significant for human life to exist. The federal government does have a duty under the public trust to protect the environment because future generations don't deserve to live in bad conditions because of the actions of past generation.

While the previous generation has acted without thinking of the future generations' well-being and need to fix the environment problem they they caused, the students have to realize that including the atmosphere as a part of the public trust doctrine is too big of a task to handle. Also this public trust doctrine can't be applied to the Supreme Court as it is based off of an old Roman concept which is not stated in the Constitution but as the government said is mostly a states issue. As much as the government has a responsibility to protect out natural resources the atmosphere is not something that can be controlled so easily with other nations having the same problem. While I admire their tenacity and courage for bringing this topic into light it is something which has no correlation to the Constitution or Amendments.

While the student are right when raising their concerns and giving out a interpretation of the public trust doctrine it is ultimately the Supreme Court who can interpret the law therefore making the students reasoning fall. Although in my personal opinion I believe everyone not just the federal goverment have a duty to protect the environment even without a public trust doctrine.

Washington, NJ
Rokosny/Warren Hills Regional High School
As much as the government has a responsibility to protect the public well being in the form of defending the integrity of natural resources, air pollution control is not something that can simply be assumed as a responsibility by our federal government. The public trust doctrine provides for the protection of natural resources by the federal government, and this Supreme Court case, the students rely on the legal technicality that the air is a "natural resource". I believe that including the entire atmosphere as part of the government's extensive contribution to the welfare of its constituents puts a bit of a stretch on the extent to which this law can demand government intervention. Air pollution is an issue that is resultant of billions of people's actions across the planet. Air pollution is unfortunately a consequence of our silicon-based industrialism that drives our world's economy, and indeed, our lives, on a day to day basis. The government cannot "act" against air pollution more than baseline regulations over extreme pollution by private entities. That being said, promoting the general welfare cannot be extended to every issue that could ever arise.Too loose of a Constitutional interpretation would put a hefty strain on the federal government, a strain that is unjustifiable within the present context of environmental concern.

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