Why a Canadian teen joined American youth in suing U.S. over climate change

All his life, Jacob Lebel has felt a special connection to the land, in rural Quebec where he was born and in Oregon where he now farms. Lebel, 19, has joined a group of American young people who are suing the U.S. government, alleging their constitutional rights are being violated because it supports the fossil fuel industry.

'Our survival' is at stake, says Quebec-born Jacob Lebel, 19, who now lives in Oregon

Quebec-born Jacob Lebel, 19, who now is a sheep farmer in Oregon, is among 21 young plaintiffs alleging the U.S. government is infringing on their constitutional rights because of inaction against climate change. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

All his life, Jacob Lebel has felt a special connection to the land, in rural Quebec where he was born and in Eugene, Ore., where he now lives and farms.

Lebel, 19, is passionate about preserving the environment and doing what is necessary to prevent climate change.

"By the time you see the full effects, by the time we see the full catastrophic effects of the decisions that we're making right now, it will be too late — we won't be able to do anything about it," says Lebel, who has joined a group of 21 young Americans between ages nine and 20 who are suing the U.S. government.

The group alleges the government is violating constitutional rights because it supports a fossil fuel industry that's damaging the environment. 

"Our survival, and the right of my generation and our children's generation to have a safe and healthy planet and climate to live in is at stake," says Lebel. "And so we are in a place right now where we don't have time, and so we need this kind of direct, overreaching, massive action. And so this is what this lawsuit is about."

Not his 1st environmental battle

In the complaint filed in Federal Court, the plaintiffs want the U.S. to "prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system."

It's not Lebel's first environmental battle.

A couple of years ago, he perceived a threat from the last place he expected: Canada. The Calgary-based energy infrastructure company Veresen wants to build a natural gas pipeline about two kilometres away from his farm.
The Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline proposed by Calgary company Veresen would run through the area where Lebel lives and farms. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

He helped fight the Veresen project to a standstill. In December, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission denied the company's appeal after its initial construction authorization was rejected.

Lebel then travelled to North Dakota to Standing Rock to join the ongoing protest over building of an access piple under Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Construction of the pipeline was halted in early December so alternate routes could be explored.

The risk of having an explosion on the pipeline and a wildfire that could affect my farm, it would literally wipe out everything that we've worked for for the last 15 years.- Jacob Lebel

But Lebel realized that by only fighting individual projects, environmentalists were just playing whack-a-mole.

"And what we realized as young people is that our voices did not really have power in actually enacting change."

During the interview, his flock of sheep gather around him as if they were puppies when he cups his hands and bleats for them. He says he joined the lawsuit against the U.S. not just to help save the environment, but also his livelihood. 

"The risk of having an explosion on the pipeline and a wildfire that could affect my farm, it would literally wipe out everything that we've worked for for the last 15 years."

Lebel says the climate change lawsuit should be a warning to leaders around the world, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

"He hasn't being willing to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and so I think there's much potential there for young people to hold him accountable, in a similar way to what we're doing here," says Lebel.

Back in the U.S., a Federal Court judge ruled in November that the climate change lawsuit against the U.S. government could proceed.

'Climate denialism will not hold water'

Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children's Trust, which is leading the lawsuit, says a trial date will be set for this summer or early fall.

But the plaintiffs will face a government led by a president who has publicly doubted climate change, and an administration full of powerful figures with ties to the oil and gas industry. They include Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon. 
Julia Olson, who's leading the lawsuit against the U.S. government, argues climate denialism will not hold water in a court of law. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"He is part of these industry defendants in our case, he is part of the American Petroleum Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers, so we will in fact have the fossil fuel industry in the White House and as defendants in this case," says Olson.​

"Climate denialism will not hold water in a court of law. You can't perjure yourself in court, and all of your experts have to be qualified. And we will win our arguments on the climate science, and that's really the essence and heart of this case. And I think there's a real benefit to putting climate science on the stand, having a full trial, bringing in experts, and talking about what is a safe level of warming."

U.S. denies causing climate change

For the U.S. government's part, a response to the lawsuit was filed in court on Jan. 13.

The assistant attorney general says in the response that the defendants "admit that for over 50 years, some officials and persons employed by the federal government have been aware of a growing body of scientific research concerning the effects of fossil fuel emissions on atmospheric concentrations of CO2, including that increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2 could cause measurable long-lasting changes to the global climate, resulting in an array of severe deleterious effects to human beings, which will worsen over time."

The defendants also admit "they permit, authorize and subsidize fossil fuel extraction, development, consumption and exportation," the response says. "Federal defendants admit that fossil fuel extraction, development and consumption produce CO2 emissions and that past emissions of CO2 from such activities have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2."

However, the document says, the defendants repeatedly deny causing climate change, increasing temperatures, sea level rise, drought, heat wave and ocean acidification.

Olson says there may not be an exact precedent, but there have been plenty of examples of courts issuing groundbreaking rulings when governments have refused to act in a timely manner. She says the civil rights movement is a prime example.
Lebel says he hopes this lawsuit is a warning to other world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"If the people of the United States had got to decide whether black children could go to integrated schools, it wouldn't have happened. And so there's a realm for the courts to step in when fundamental rights are being violated."

Supporters of the fight against climate change point to a similar human rights case brought by activists in the Netherlands. In 2015, a judge ordered that country reduce emissions by 25 per cent within five years. The Dutch government is appealing that decision.

​Olson says her side has about 10 lawyers working on the case, which is expected to cost millions. But she says they can count on plenty of law students and climate change experts who will volunteer their time.

"We're also anticipating about $2 million worth of donated attorney time, so we're going to be in good shape," she says.

Lebel knows it won't be easy — his opponents have billions at stake. But, he argues, his side has even more to lose.

"It is a pretty unequal fight, as far as money, and power and entrenched interests, but I think that the youth — especially the younger kids, my co-plaintiffs, the younger kids on this lawsuit — we hold a huge moral authority," says Lebel. "By sharing our own personal stories about climate change, how it affects us out, we are putting a face on this problem, the face of the youth who will be the most affected."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.