Mary Christina Wood, law professor at the University of Oregonoriginator of Atmospheric Trust Litigation, which holds governments accountable for reducing carbon pollution within their jurisdictions. Her research supports cases and petitions brought on behalf of children and youth worldwide, including the Our Children’s Trust legal action.
Mary Christina Wood is a lawyer, academic, and author who is best known for her work in advocating the use of the Public Trust Doctrine to force governments to take action on climate change. In this exclusive Green Interview, Wood speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about how she originated the approach, called Atmospheric Trust Litigation, to hold governments worldwide accountable for reducing carbon pollution within their jurisdictions. The most spectacular such case is the Our Children’s Trust case in which 21 young people are suing the U.S. government for violating their constitutional rights by promoting the production of greenhouse gases through the use of fossil fuels. Wood also discusses her book Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age, and how she hopes it will help fuel a tide of litigation worldwide. Wood is also a professor and founder of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Centre at the University of Oregon where she teaches property law, natural resources law, public trust law, and federal Indian law.
The Public Trust Doctrine
According to Wood the Public Trust Doctrine is a well-established but a neglected legal principle that stretches back in various forms to Roman law. The doctrine holds that legislatures and governments are trustees of the natural world with a duty to protect it to ensure the welfare and survival of present and future generations. Wood explains that the doctrine requires that governments act as trustees for the people of the future and if they’re failing to do that, then citizens can and should apply to the courts to require that the authorities do their legal duty. In 2013 Wood published Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age, a book that lays out the Public Trust Doctrine and how it can be used. “I really did think that if I could just write a book that would bring the public trust to the people, that there would be just no end to how different citizens would apply that concept against the threats of their communities,” she tells Cameron. “So I hope that is true and this is a moment where it’s going to take everybody, every single person on Earth just diving in and using whatever resources they have to prevent at this point the prospect of runaway planetary heating.”
Our Children’s Trust
Wood argues that the Public Trust Doctrine also applies to the air that we breathe. That’s the basis of what she calls Atmospheric Trust Litigation, which calls on the courts to require that governments take swift and decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions within their jurisdictions. The most spectacular such case is the Our Children’s Trust case in which 21 young people are suing the U.S. government for violating their constitutional rights by promoting the production of greenhouse gases through the use of fossil fuels. Instead the children want governments to reduce their emissions by 6 percent a year. The Our Children’s Trust case, which is still in litigation, has been called the most important lawsuit in the world and its roots are in the thought of Mary Wood. “This climate crisis was anticipated by government and by industry decades ago and yet the government pursued this fossil fuel policy that it knew to be dangerous. And the trial I believe will prove all of this out but even the government reports that exist right now show that government knew of this danger for decades,” she tells Cameron.
So just by virtue of the circumstance we’re in, we’re at the last possible moment before the window of opportunity closes… I call it ‘the case that has the planet on its docket,’ literally because it affects every living being on Earth today and also all foreseeable generations.