A group of 21 climate-conscious kids is suing the U.S. government over global warming, accusing the defendants of endangering the young plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property via the extensive use of fossil fuels. They are backed by the environmental advocacy group Our Children’s Trust, which has supported similar lawsuits in other states, but this is the first time such an action has come this far, after a federal judge ruled that they have constitutional grounds to press their case.
The government and three fossil fuel industry trade associations had filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the U.S. has no duty to protect natural resources at the federal level and that the public trust doctrine—a foundational principle of many environmental and natural resource laws—only applies on the state level. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ruled on April 8 that the government is subject to the doctrine, and that as trustee of the nation’s resources it must protect them.
Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen, a prominent researcher-turned-activist whose 1988 congressional testimony on climate change helped bring the issue into the national spotlight, is the only plaintiff on the case over 19 years of age. Hanson, who is 75, first became involved with Our Children’s Trust in 2010, when the organization asked him to help file a case against the government by contributing the scientific basis for the lawsuit. That case made it to district court level in the District of Columbia but was ultimately dismissed for not making the constitutional basis for the case clear enough. “This time we have got it right, and I am confident that we will win,” Hansen says.
Kelsey Juliana—at 19 the oldest of the “youth plaintiffs,” as they describe themselves—has already spent much of her life in environmental activism.* She has participated in the Great March for Climate Action as well as the 2014 People’s Climate March held in New York City and has been a longtime advocate for climate change awareness in Oregon. Now a student at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., she is majoring in environmental studies, focusing on environmental education and policy while continuing her work with Our Children’s Trust and other environmental activism groups.
Scientific American spoke with Juliana about her involvement in the lawsuit.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How did you get involved in this case?
When I was younger I was doing climate action in my local community of Eugene, Ore. I heard about kids taking legal action in 2011 and so I co-filed a lawsuit against the state of Oregon when I was 15. I’ve been doing work with Our Children’s Trust since 2011, and in those five years I’ve seen the conversation around climate change intensify and certainly expand to most of my state. Last year we had a state of emergency in Oregon due to drought and higher temperatures than normal. We’re seeing the effects of climate change, and it could have an impact on my livelihood. This’ll be my first election that I can actually vote in, but I’m the oldest on the case. Seeing how climate change has had an impact in just five years, and seeing how little action those who hold political power have enacted, makes me nervous and a little disappointed.
What are the goals of the case?
This case is arguing that the U.S. government has violated the constitutional rights of youth and the generation that will feel the effects of climate change as we grow up. We’re arguing that the U.S. government has betrayed its youth by continuing to support the fossil fuel industry and contribute to climate change. We filed a civil rights violation case on the grounds that the U.S. government is threatening our rights to life, liberty and property. They’re threatening our access to stable, healthy, natural resources protected under the public trust doctrine. Through this doctrine, the government is entrusted with the protection of resources for generations to come. By allowing for our water, air and land to become polluted, they are neglecting their responsibility.
When did you first get involved in environmental activism?
My parents were environmental activists back in the 1990s, working particularly to save old-growth forests and natural water systems in the Pacific Northwest. Even back in the 1990s they were talking about climate change. I grew up advocating for protecting the Earth. It was eighth grade when I felt this strong need to take critical action now, when I did a research project on the polar bear.
One of your co-plaintiffs is a well-known climate scientist, James Hansen. What’s his role?
We are so grateful to him for providing the top climate science that we have today to give us evidence [for] the courts. He knows the real weight of this issue and what’s at stake as we continue to go on this trajectory that we’re currently on. He wanted to take the stand because of his granddaughter, because he knew the science and feared for her well-being. A lot of the reason he’s on this case is to provide us top climate science.
What do you hope the government will do in response to your case?
Right now, we’re over 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to be at 350 to have a stable future. The percentage [of emissions scientists deemed necessary to cut in order to sufficiently stabilize CO2 levels] has gone up—we haven’t done anything. It’s up to the federal government to reduce emissions to get back to 350 ppm of CO2 in our atmosphere.
Do you think combating climate change is particularly important for kids and young adults?
Definitely. Our generation [has] contributed the least to this problem but we’ll feel its effects the most. It’s really shameful for past generations and those in power right now that they have allowed this negligence for their children and their grandchildren. Youths right now are threatened with food insecurity, sicknesses, depleting water sources and coast erosion. We will feel the effects of climate change for the longest as the youngest generation alive today.
What should people do to get involved or to help?
Go to OurChildrensTrust.org for new legal information and what you can do to take legal action in your community, and then to go to EarthGuardians.org. Earth Guardians also submitted a brief on this case. They’re a really good resource, particularly for youth who are interested in working on social and environmental issues and elevating these voices.
*Editor's Note (4/20/16): This sentence was edited after posting to correct a name misspelling.