A group of 21 children are suing the US government for failing to adequately address global warming after a judge ruled that the case has merit and should go forward. The climate advocacy group Our Children's Trust of Oregon brought the suit on behalf of the young plaintiffs, aged eight to 19.

The suit argues that the government is violating plaintiffs' constitutional and public trust rights by promoting the use of fossil fuels, and that the failure to stem climate change has caused harm to young people alive today, as well as to future generations.

Public trust doctrine asserts that the government is a trustee of the natural resources that citizens depend on for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The suit claims that the government has known for decades that carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels has been causing climate change but has "failed to take necessary action" to cut these emissions.

Oregon Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin found that while the plaintiff's case is "unprecedented," it has merit and should proceed.

"The intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government," Coffin ruled. "This is especially true when such harms have an alleged disparate impact on a discrete class of society."

He also rejected arguments from the Department of Justice and fossil fuel companies, also named in the suit, that the government has no duty to protect essential natural resources. Coffin's decision also recognised the legitimate claims that lack of action may be unconstitutional "by denying them protections afforded to previous generations and by favouring the short-term economic interests of certain citizens."

The case – Kelsey Cascade Rose Juliana v United States – takes a different approach than previous global warming litigation, which have mainly focused on violations of specific laws, such as the Clean Air Act.

If it succeeds, it could open the door for a flood of similar suits, according to Mashable. In addition to the young people, the plaintiffs also include James Hansen, a former top climate scientist at NASA and currently a climate scientist affiliated with Columbia University. He is named in the case as a "guardian for future generations."