By suing U.S. government over climate change, young people 'take some of that control into our own hands'

Twenty-one young co-plaintiffs say they are fed up with the U.S. government's lack of action on climate change. So they're taking their government to court.

Co-plaintiff, 19, urges youth to 'hold your government accountable'

Twenty-One plaintiffs, ranging from the age nine to 20, are fighting against the U.S. government in court for not taking action on climate change and affecting the future of young people. (Our Children's Trust/Facebook)
Listen23:39

Victoria Barrett is one of 21 young adults suing the U.S. government over climate change — a suit that was recently propelled forward by a judge's decision.

"This lawsuit shows that we could take some of that control into our own hands," the 19-year-old told The Current's guest host Connie Walker.

The lawsuit, originally filed in 2015, is scheduled to go to trial in federal court on Oct. 29.

Victoria Barrett, 19, is one of the plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit against the U.S. government. She says her generation has the most at stake and that's why she's motivated to take action. (Bashir Aden/Submitted by Victoria Barrett)

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled that the lawsuit could proceed after the federal government's attempt to halt the case last week, but U.S. President Donald Trump cannot be named as a defendant, according to a Reuters report. However, the lawsuit still includes the heads of other U.S. agencies, which were revised after Trump took office.

The U.S. Justice Department said it was reviewing Monday's decision.

Attorneys defending the young plaintiffs argue that the U.S. government has taken direct action to perpetuate climate change, and as a result, "put my life, liberty and property at risk — violating the U.S. Constitution, and disproportionately doing that to young people," Barrett said.

"There are facts … that support what we're saying and support what we're scared of," she said.

Many of the co-plaintiffs were not of legal age to make the change they wanted to see at the ballot box, Barrett said.

"We are trying to find ways to be able to engage with our government in a way that they had to care about what we are saying, even though we didn't necessarily have the political power to put them in office."

Barrett wants other young people to feel empowered to "hold your government accountable."

David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, argues litigation is a powerful tool to make governments accountable. He finds the climate lawsuit against the U.S. government 'inspiring.' (Submitted by David Boyd)

David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, is inspired by the bold stand Barrett and her co-plaintiffs have taken on the issue, calling them "visionary."

"Litigation is actually one of the most powerful tools for holding governments' feet to the fire and forcing governments to be accountable," he told Walker.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, David Boyd believes litigation is a powerful tool worth using in the fight against climate change. He explains how court decisions have served as turning points in the trajectory of a society. 1:30

A victory case in Colombia

Young people in Colombia have already tasted victory in a similar dispute with their government, which started in early 2017.

In April, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of 25 plaintiffs — ranging in age from seven to 26 — and ordered the government to stop the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. 

"Deforestation increased by 44 per cent in 2016. So we told the court that people who are our children, teenagers and young adults today are going to suffer the effects and the consequences of not doing something right now," said Gabriela Eslava, the oldest of the plaintiffs, who is also the lawyer who brought the case forward.

Gabriela Eslava is one of the oldest of the 25 plaintiffs who fought against the Colombian government to stop deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. The Supreme Court ruled in their favour. (Submitted by Gabriela Eslava )

The Supreme Court ordered the government to present an action plan within four months to combat deforestation in the Amazon. In their ruling, they determined that the Amazon rainforest is an entity subject to rights, meaning its ecosystem must be protected and restored.

Eslava added that the Colombian government has also been ordered to work with communities and the plaintiffs to create an intergenerational pact for the life of the Colombian Amazon.

The plaintiffs who won their lawsuit against the Colombia government to stop deforestation consists of 25 children, teenagers and young people from 17 different cities and municipalities.

"What is more important is that the Supreme Court recognizes that our future generations have environmental rights."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


With files from Reuters and CBC Radio. Produced by Alison Masemann, Caro Rolando and Donya Ziaee.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.