Last May, a group of teenagers filed a series of lawsuits seeking to force the federal and state governments to take action on climate change. A key argument made in the lawsuits is that the atmosphere is a public trust — or, as described in one brief, that it is a “fundamental natural resource necessarily entrusted to the care of our federal government … for its preservation and protection as a common property interest.”

Yesterday, a state district court judge in Texas agreed.

Our Children’s Trust, one of the signatories to the lawsuit, issued a press release [PDF].

Judge Gisela Triana issued a written decision finding that all natural resources are protected under the Public Trust Doctrine and the state constitution of Texas in a climate change lawsuit brought by youth (Angela Bonser-Lain, et al. v Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Case No. D-1-GN-11-002194). In deferring to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) decision to deny the Plaintiffs’ petition for rulemaking while other ongoing litigation over regulations ensues, the Judge concluded that the TCEQ’s determination that the Public Trust Doctrine is exclusively limited to the conservation of water, was legally invalid. …

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In her written decision, Judge Triana declares, “The Court will find that the Commission’s conclusion, that the public trust doctrine is exclusively limited to the conservation of water, is legally invalid. The doctrine includes all natural resources of the State.”

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Michael Cote has a good summary of the legal significance in a post at his blog, Climate Adaptation.

Our Children’s Trust, which won the lawsuit and put out a press release just moments ago, states, “The case relies upon the long established principle of the public trust doctrine, which requires all branches of government to protect and maintain certain shared resources fundamental for human health and survival.”

It’s long been established that open bodies of water are “in trust” of the public, and therefore must be managed for protection in perpetuity by the government. The case is huge. It expands (or reaffirms) that air is also a public trust, and therefore falls under protection for all.

Cote suggests that the ruling will have implications for environmental protection across the country — though it’s safe to assume that the decision would be appealed before more reluctant states take any action.