Lawyers representing young Quebecers tried to convince a judge Thursday to authorize a class action lawsuit against the federal government for what they argue is a failure to combat climate change.
The class action brought by ENvironnement JEUnesse would be on behalf of Quebecers aged 35 and under, whom lawyers argue are being deprived of a right to a healthy environment and will suffer the effects of global warming more than older generations.
Going to court is the group's way of forcing Ottawa's hand to do more to knock itself from the top of the list of countries that emit the most greenhouse gases per capita.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Gary Morrison heard arguments Thursday from lawyers for the group as well as the federal government, which argued the courts were not the proper place for the protest.
For federal lawyers, allowing such an action to proceed would be an unjustified interference of the courts in the political sphere.
Climate change is a major challenge of this century and young people are well within their rights to emphasize an urgency to act — but the court isn't the place to exercise this right, government lawyer Ginette Gobeil told the court.
And the government cannot be forced to introduce legislation or force Parliament to adopt them, she told Morrison.
The court filing, by a well-known Montreal law firm that specializes in class actions, alleges the Canadian government is violating the fundamental rights of an entire generation.
Notably, the lawyers say young people's right to life and security is violated, as well as their right to equality.
The socio-economic costs of the federal government's inertia on climate change will disproportionately afflict that generation, lawyer Bruce Johnston argued on behalf of the group.
The federal government is at fault, Johnston said, adding the behaviour is intentional: the government knows it has an obligation to act, knows what must be done, but does not do so.
"Without a healthy habitat, we have no future as a species," Johnston said.
If the action is allowed to proceed, lawyers are seeking $100 from the federal government for each Quebecer in that age bracket — with a catch.
Because doling out an award estimated at $340 million would be complicated and expensive, the action suggests the money be spent on measures to curb climate change.
Awarding damages could have a dissuasive impact, Johnston said. "It could be extremely powerful politically," Johnston said.
The goal of the suit is also to obtain a statement that the government has adopted greenhouse gas reduction targets that are dangerous, and that it has failed to take necessary steps to limit global warming to within 1.5 degrees Celsius.
But the federal government alone isn't responsible for pollution or for attaining greenhouse gas targets, Gobeil added. She took, for example, the pushback in recent months against the federal government's carbon tax, which has been challenged by provinces in court.
"This class action asks the court to interfere in the legislative and the executive branches," Gobeil said, and the courts cannot dictate to the federal government a way forward.
Morrison will render a ruling at a later date, with the merits of the case to be argued should the case be authorized to proceed.