Water is a big deal in California. Consequently, there is an entire sub-specialty of California law dealing with water and other environmental issues, based in part on the notion that natural resources belong to everyone. This was bolstered by a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a California case that the government has a duty to protect the "people's common heritage" under the public trust doctrine.
It sounds straightforward enough, but in some quarters controversy continues about the exact nature of public natural resources and how far the state can go to protect them. A lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court could clarify things somewhat, at least as far as air quality goes. Part of a campaign to fight global warming by using the public trust doctrine, the lawsuit was filed by teens and young adults and supported by a variety of environmental groups. It calls for federal agencies to protect the atmosphere as a public resource under the public trust doctrine. There are similar actions and lawsuits pending in all 50 states, each involving children.
One of the supporting organizations is Our Children's Trust. This group and others have involved children in order to highlight the long-term benefits of investing in the environment, which the group believes is a public responsibility. The individuals who will most benefit by success in these legal actions are people who are now children and young adults.
The actions are opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) which has opposed efforts to regulate greenhouse gasses and other environmental pollutants for many years. And some legal experts have opposed it not because they disagree with the premise but because they are doubtful that the campaign will be successful. The issue of whether air is the same as water or wildlife, which can be captured and tracked, is a legal problem that has not yet been resolved. U.S. courts appear to be reluctant to take on the executive branch or Congress to restrict CO2 emissions further, for example.
Opponents of air-quality regulation such as the NAM usually point to the cost of installing equipment that would limit CO2 emissions from vehicles and industry.
Source: Huffington Post, "Public Doctrine Lawsuit Asks For Protection Of Atmosphere As A Public Resource," Apr. 2, 2012.