A group of young Americans are suing the U.S. government over climate change

Did the U.S. government discriminate against young people by failing to take decisive action on climate change? That's the argument of the 21 youth, aged nine to 20, who are suing the government on behalf of their generation. Lead attorney Julia Olson tells Brent Bambury about the lawsuit and the Trump administration's ongoing effort to get the case thrown out.
Twenty-one young people from across the United States are suing the U.S. federal government over climate change. (Our Children's Trust/Facebook)
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By the time today's youth are 50 years old, many of the islands and cities they call home will be forever changed.

As global sea levels and average annual temperatures continue to rise, 21 young Americans have decided to take matters into their own hands — by suing the U.S. government over climate change.

They range in age from nine to 20 years old, and they're from all over the United States — from Alaska to the Marshall Islands.

They say that they're the ones who will inherit the consequences of climate change, so they're determined to hold the U.S. government accountable. 

U.S. district judge Ann Aiken ruled in favour of the youths’ claim in Nov. 2016, making clearing the path for a trial that’s expected to begin later this year. (Our Children's Trust/Facebook)

Their lawsuit argues that the U.S. government violated their rights by failing to protect the planet from climate change.

It calls on the government to develop a plan to stabilize the climate system and reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million by the year 2100. And if all goes according to plan, the case will proceed to trial later this year.

This isn't about money or about land. It's about human existence and life, and how we're going to progress from this point.- 17-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett

Julia Olson is the lead attorney on the case and the executive director of the environmental non-profit organization Our Children's Trust, which aims to protect children from climate change.

As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, the youth she represents see climate change as the defining social justice movement of their generation.

"These 21 young people, they're not seeking any kind of damages [or] money remedies," Olson says.

"What they're seeking is a really sane, viable plan that the U.S. government puts together to quickly de-carbonize our economy and get us off of fossil fuels, which are destroying their future." 

Three of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, as presented on the Our Children's Trust website. (Our Children's Trust)
                               

Inheriting a healthy planet

Olson says the young people she represents in this case have a different perspective on climate change than most U.S. lawmakers.

"I think that young people have a kind of clarity that adults often lose," Olson says. "These young people I work with, they see things clearly and in a really straightforward way, and many of them are just really living climate impacts right now, and questioning 'why is this happening?'"

16-year-old plaintiff Miko Vergun's home country is the Marshall Islands, where low-lying atolls are slipping into the sea as water levels rise because of melting Arctic ice. (Matthieu Rytz)

The youngest plaintiff in the case is Levi Draheim, who lives on a low-lying barrier island off Florida's Atlantic coast. He's just nine years old.

"Already in Levi's short young life, he's lost the beaches that he used to play on when he was younger," Olson says. "He can no longer swim in the lagoon he used to swim in because of warm water and toxic algae blooms."

"So Levi's watching his home environment really disintegrate in front of him. And he's worried that the home he lives in will be underwater one day."

 "I'm not confident that a 63-year-old can have my best interests at heart because they're not really living the same life that I am."- 17-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett

Another plaintiff in the case is Victoria Barrett, a 17-year-old high school student and environmental activist in Manhattan.

Barrett was just 12 years old when Hurricane Sandy swept through New York City in 2012.

"It was really scary. I was home all day with my family because nobody was really travelling around a lot," Barrett recalls on Day 6"I remember it being like, intense winds and rain … it kind of seemed like the end of the world, almost, when you're in the midst of a super-storm like that."

People walk by sand bags in front of a building in Times Square in New York City as Hurricane Sandy begins to affect the area on October 29, 2012. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Barrett says living through Hurricane Sandy made her realize just how different her future could be as a result of climate change.

"It's easy to feel like nature can't really touch you when you're in a concrete city like this," Barrett says. "But in that moment, I realized the actions that … perpetuate climate change were a direct cause of how that storm affected us."

As a teen, Barrett became active as an environmental activist. She feels the government hasn't done enough to safeguard her future.

"In the United States, the average lawmaker is 63, and I'm not confident that a 63-year-old can have my best interests at heart because they're not really living the same life that I am; and they didn't grow up in the same way that I did," Barrett says.

For Barrett, the lawsuit represents an opportunity for the younger generation to make their voices heard.

After all, they will eventually be the ones tasked with handling the fallout from the environmental changes that are coming.

"We're going to be disproportionately impacted by the issues of climate change," Barrett says. "And we're the ones that are going to be dealing with these issues, and we're going to be the ones having to write the policies and develop sustainably past the point where we are now."

Portraits of some of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, as presented on the Our Children's Trust website. (Our Children's Trust)

                       

Making a constitutional case

The lawsuit hinges on the assertion that the U.S. government promoted the fossil fuel industry for decades, even though it was fully aware of the danger that greenhouse gas emissions posed to the climate system.

Olson and her team will argue that the U.S. government's inaction on climate change has imperilled the future of the planet, violating young Americans' constitutional right to life, liberty and and property.

Now that they've created this huge problem for us and for later generations, they need to... reduce emissions on a really urgent timeline.- Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children's Trust

It's an ambitious claim, but Olson is adamant.

"Our federal government can't, for over 50 years, know that if we continue to burn fossil fuels that it would cause climate change and it would be catastrophic. They can't keep doing that and supporting that kind of national energy system," says Olson.

Olson believes the young people she works with will remain hopeful and avoid cynicism, even if their case is not ultimately successful. (Our Children's Trust/Facebook)

"And now that they've created this huge problem for us and for later generations, they need to really get active and do their job to reduce emissions on a really urgent timeline."

U.S. district judge Ann Aiken ruled in favour of the youths' claim last November, opening the path for a trial that's expected to begin later this year.

In her 54-page ruling, Aiken wrote that she has "no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society."

Aiken's ruling marked the first time the courts have officially recognized a person's right to a climate system that's capable of sustaining life, according to Olson.

But Olson says there's a strong legal precedent for the argument that a healthy atmosphere should be included in Americans' constitutional right to life, liberty and property.

A dog team mushes past a house above the Tanana River in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is home to 15-year-old plaintiff Nathan Baring. (Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News/AP)
   

"The long and historic basis of protecting vital natural systems like air and water actually comes to us from Roman times through the King of England ... to the earliest laws in the United States about protecting vital resources for the benefit of present and future generations," says Olson.

The case will draw on decades' worth of federal government documents as evidence, some of which date all the way back to the 1940s and 1950s.

"One of the most powerful things I've seen is from President Nixon's administration in 1970, saying 'what we do about this atmospheric carbon dioxide pollution problem will determine whether man survives or perishes'."

The influence that groups like [the American Petroleum Institute] had over the decisions of the federal government are a really critical part of this case.- Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children's Trust

Olson's team has also requested access to a series of controversial emails about climate change that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent under the pseudonym 'Wayne Tracker' when he was the CEO of Exxon-Mobil.

"The influence that groups like [the American Petroleum Institute] had over the decisions of the federal government are a really critical part of this case," Olson says.

"When the government makes decisions on climate that are for the benefit of API and Exxon and their members over the interests of young people and future generations, there's clear discrimination [against young people]."

"And so these emails, we think, will help illuminate not only what these fossil fuel defendants knew about climate change, but the influence they were trying to have over government policies."

Portraits of some of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, as presented on the Our Children's Trust website. (Our Children's Trust)

                                

The U.S. government fights back

The lawsuit was originally filed under the Obama administration, which argued that the U.S. court system is not suited to deal with climate change because it is a global phenomenon.

But Olson is quick to reject that argument.

"That's just wrong. It is absolutely a global problem; it's also a national problem for every nation on earth. And, you know, we're responsible for over 25 per cent of historic cumulative carbon dioxide emissions. We have an enormous responsibility in the global community."

Aiken's ruling came down on November 10, just two days after the U.S. federal election.

If the Trump administration tries to deny that climate change is real or that it's happening, it will fall on flat feet with this court.- Julia Olson, Executive Director of Our Children's Trust

Earlier this month, the Trump administration requested a federal appeals court review of Judge Aiken's decision. Those hearings are scheduled for next month, according to Olson.

Successful or not, legal experts and environmental activists say the lawsuit could mark the beginning of a wave of rights-based climate change litigation.

If the lawsuit does ultimately proceed to trial, Olson says it will force the Trump administration to outline its own position on climate change.

"The Obama administration answered the plaintiffs' complaint in this case and admitted most of the central facts about climate change — its causes, its severe impacts and the irreversibility of the changes that are occurring," Olson says. "And if the Trump administration tries to deny that climate change is real or that it's happening, it will fall on flat feet with this court."

"This court understands the science, understands the admissions that have been made by the prior administration and there's no legitimate scientific support or any real basis for what the Trump administration has said to the media," says Olson.

The young plaintiffs, including Barrett, remain determined to be heard no matter what.

"This isn't about money or about land," says Barrett. "It's about human existence and life, and how we're going to progress from this point."

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with Julia Olson, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.