In 2015, several minors living in Pennsylvania filed a climate change lawsuit in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania against the Governor and various state agencies, demanding that the Executive Branch develop a comprehensive plan to protect them from alleged deleterious effects of global climate change. The youths premised their argument upon Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution known as the Environmental Rights Amendment. (The “ERA” was the primary authority asserted by those who, in 2012, brought forth a constitutional challenge to Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Act.) The ERA provides that “[t]he people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”
The plaintiffs requested that the Court direct the Executive Branch, as the trustee over natural resources, to: (1) conduct various proactive studies to determine how the environmental values set forth in the ERA may be impacted by climate change and increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and green house emissions; and, (2) promulgate regulations to reduce harmful levels of such substances. Further, the plaintiffs asked the Court to issue certain declarations related to the public trustee duties established by the ERA.
On July 26, 2016, the Court issued its decision denying the relief requested by the plaintiffs. The Court held that the balancing act of environmental and societal concerns, that may be mandated by the ERA, is achieved through the legislative process. Because the Court did not find any legislative enactments or regulatory provisions that mandated the Executive Branch to perform any of the actions sought by the plaintiffs, the Court denied the applicable mandamus requests: “Under the current scheme, deciding whether to conduct particular studies, promulgate regulations or issue executive orders detailing the process by which environmental decisions are made, and to prepare and implement comprehensive regulations addressing climate change are either discretionary acts of government officials or is a task for the General Assembly.”