The Public Trust Doctrine
The Public Trust Doctrine holds that there are certain natural resources so vital to public welfare and human survival that they must be stewarded for the benefit of all persons and for future generations (air, water, fish and wildlife, etc). These are ‘public trust assets’ that are common property for all humans, so essential that they must not be compromised for private or corporate uses that might harm the public’s interest. Our climate and atmosphere have no peer as a public trust resource, as all other natural resources are wholly dependent on the earth’s atmosphere and climate.
There is no more clear responsibility of our public agencies than to be responsible for the stewardship of our public trust assets. If there is a community in our state or nation that does not have the benefit of access to clean air and a stable atmosphere, then our trustees (the government) are failing in their public trust responsibilities.
And if we are not diligent in demanding the sustainable stewarding of our natural resource trust assets, then we are failing our future generations.
The reality that our federal and state legislative bodies' are incapable of acting for us youth (versus acting for special interests) is abundantly clear (COP 26 failures; Biden increasing oil and gas drilling; emissions reductions legislation and regulations continually sabotaged by industry; endless misinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel industry, etc.).
Similar to any legal trust, the public trust doctrine (for climate) has three primary components: the trustee (our government, responsible for protecting and managing the trust); the “trust” (our climate and atmosphere); and the trust beneficiaries (us and future generations).
Our climate is facing unconscionable threats. Never has the public trust doctrine been more needed to force government to be accountable, as trustees, for the benefit (and survival) of us and future generations. Earth’s atmosphere currently contains 417ppm CO2, well above the UN target of 350ppm. Emissions continue to rise across the globe and devastating weather conditions are now here and will increase for decades, potentially centuries. This unprecedented and immoral devastation of our planet appears to be acceptable to adults, but can not be acceptable to us youth.
We believe the Public Trust principles can and should be interpreted to include both the precautionary and the prevention principles. The precautionary principle forces more timely and protective decision-making, reducing the requirement of scientific proof of “unacceptable harm” before action is taken (the blah, blah, blah syndrome). The prevention principle requires the government to take positive actions that prevent harm to our climate, rather than merely reducing the harm. Importantly, we believe this should shift the government’s role from one of allowing harm to one of avoiding and stopping harm.
We seek quick and real action for climate protection at the local, regional and state administrative levels. We hope that these levels of “trustees” are able to muster the courage to be accountable to us, to aggressively act to achieve the public trust protections we desperately need.
The Public Trust Doctrine is a doctrine for true democracy, a democracy that includes our generation and future generations. It is also a doctrine for all life on Earth.