Young people are suing their policymakers for violating their constitutional rights. Their complaints allege that governments have known about the dangers of climate change for 50 years, yet have continued to promote fossil fuel energy systems, which contribute heavily to climate change. In Part II of Treading Water, we examine how such lawsuits are contributing a new legal landscape for the rights to a stable climate.
Naya James, a 13-year-old aspiring novelist from Gainesville, is frankly irritated.
Fed up, really.
She finds it enraging that adults have known about the science of climate change for decades. Yet, she and her three younger brothers are left to clean up the mess.
At the time of her interview with The Marjorie, James hadn’t heard of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
She simply has been hearing the warnings of a warming planet since she was 8 years old. She and her friends discuss the climate crisis regularly. It’s part of their vernacular.
For James, the best way to sum up her feelings is to quote Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax.”
“Let it die. Let it die. Let it shrivel up and die,” James said.
“They [our leaders] don’t care what happens to the Earth because they will be dead by the time it actually starts to affect people.”
Life, Liberty and Property
Without voting rights under their belt, other young people are suing the U.S. government to demand climate action.
What’s more American than an old-fashioned lawsuit?
What they are asking for is clearly spelled out in the U.S. Constitution: life, liberty and property.
“Essentially, you couldn’t enjoy any of your rights without a stable climate system,” said Andrea Rodgers, a staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, a legal nonprofit representing youth in climate change lawsuits.
We tell kids they can be whatever they want when they grow up, Rodgers says.
“But they’re smart and they understand what the science is telling them.”
Rodgers and other pro bono lawyers represent youth around the nation in constitutional climate lawsuits against state and federal governments.
Their complaints allege that governments have known about the dangers of climate change for half a century, yet have continued to promote fossil fuel energy systems, which contribute heavily to climate change.
“Through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources,” reads the complaint for the federal lawsuit, Juliana v. United States.
Twenty-one young people from Florida, Oregon, Colorado, New York, Hawaii, Louisiana, Arizona, Alaska, Washington and Pennsylvania are named as plaintiffs in the case.
Additionally, seven members of Congress, religious and women’s groups, medical doctors, the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 32,000 people under the age of 25 showed their support for the case in the form of amicus briefs, lawyer lingo for letters of support.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have tried to get the case dismissed since it was first filed more than four years ago. Lawyers for the Trump administration argue that climate change should be handled through the political process, not through the courts.
“No federal court has ever permitted an action that seeks to review decades of agency action (and alleged inaction) by a dozen federal agencies and executive offices — all in pursuit of a policy goal,” reads the defendant’s court brief.
But, Rodgers disagrees. The court of law is probably one of the best venues to fight climate change, she said.
“Because in the courtroom, there is no fake news.”
That would be perjury.
“Courts have to accept the best available climate science,” Rodgers said.
And, she says, the courts have the ability to demand government agencies to develop and implement a climate recovery plan.
“We are very fortunate in this country to have courts of law to step in and apply and interpret the constitution,” she said.
“That is what makes America great.”
The motions to dismiss were denied in 2016.
“Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” read U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken’s judgment.
The parties are currently awaiting a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Just last week, the plaintiffs held a press conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court alongside Thunberg.
Using the Juliana case as a model, lawyers with Our Children’s Trust have worked with youth plaintiffs around the nation to file similar lawsuits in their home states, including Florida.
Reynolds V. FLORIDA
Isaac Augspurg, a ninth grader at Trilogy School in Gainesville, is one of eight youth plaintiffs suing the Sunshine State in a similar lawsuit called Reynolds v. State of Florida. For Augspurg, participating in the lawsuit helps calm his nerves— the deep uncertainty he feels when he thinks about the climate crisis.
Which is all the time.
“Not only do I not know what I’m going to do when I get older, but I don’t know if I’m going to have that ability to follow these different paths because of the climate crisis,” Augspurg said.
Participating in the lawsuit and meeting other activists helps him keep from feeling isolated. Being part of the movement is what gives him hope.
“No matter what happens with this lawsuit, the outcome will end up being positive,” Augspurg said.
“If it doesn’t win, it will still have brought attention to the issue and shown kids that are actually doing things, actively trying.”
Oscar Psychas, 21, the oldest of the plaintiffs in the case, thinks Florida is one of the more well-positioned states to win such a suit.
He’s done his research.
“We have the most intense climate change threats and the most irresponsible government action,” said Psychas, who once walked from Gainesville to Tallahassee to raise awareness about the need to fund conservation programs.
“And then we have a state constitution that really lays out that the environment is a right.”
The Florida plaintiffs are specific with their ask — a climate recovery plan that’s designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase the capacity for the state’s carbon sequestration and transition to a decarbonized energy system.
“This is just part of an effort to build a new legal landscape that basically accepts the that a healthy environment is a basic human right.”
But, the U.S. is not the only place where Generation Z is using the legal system to demand action.
In April 2018, 25 children sued the Colombian government for failing to protect their rights to a healthy environment due to increasing deforestation. The Supreme Court of Justice recognized the right and ruled in their favor. Similar lawsuits are also ongoing in Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland.
Just this week, Thunberg and 15 other children filed a complaint against Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey on the basis that the countries have failed to uphold their obligations under the 30-year-old human rights treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Reynolds v. Florida, led by Miami climate activist Delaney Reynolds, was first filed In April 2018 against the State of Florida, Rick Scott and several state agencies.
“In causing climate change, the state of Florida has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness, and has caused harm to Florida’s essential public trust resources, such as beaches and marine life,” reads the complaint.
In September of last year, the state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The plaintiffs and their lawyers responded. Several faith groups, the League of Women’s Voters, Reef Relief and the Isaac Walton League filed amicus briefs with the court in support.
Right now, the Florida case is awaiting a trial date. The plaintiffs are left in limbo, waiting for the time where they can testify.
But, their time is running out.
Youth Has Always Shifted Culture Toward Progress
When climate scientists talk about the future, the year 2050 is often used as a benchmark. Naya James will only be 42 years old. Her children will likely be witnessing some of the impacts in their formative years.
To her, there is nothing special about her generation. They just happen to be this age, at this point in time, when our planet needs help.
“I guess the difference with us than other generations is that we hear about it all the time,” James said.
“I feel as though if we mess up, then we’re hypocrites because we’ve heard everything.”
As Isaac Augspurg addresses the crowd at Gainesville’s City Hall during the Youth Climate Strike, he reminds them:
“Youth have always shifted culture toward progress.”
Augspurg’s cousin Madelyn Walker, 17, wants to make one thing clear for adults — looking to youth for hope isn’t right.
“It’s just an unfair thing to ask even of us who are voluntarily here and talking about it,” Walker said.
Her motivation for advocating for climate action?
More worry-free days. That, and the comments section. Bring it on, climate deniers. Anger fuels her.
“I would like to have a life where I don’t have to worry about it,” Walker said.
“Having moments and days where I don’t worry about it as much is a reminder in itself that this is what we’re fighting for.”
Photos by Rebecca Burton and Kristen Grace
As young people learn about the impacts of climate change, they have the power to change the attitudes of their parents. Meanwhile, adults who are painfully aware of the existential realities of the climate crisis learn new ways to cope with their growing despair. In Part I of Treading Water, we explore the allure of young activists in the age of eco-grief.
Today’s youth have already become disillusioned with our power structures. Loss and trauma will define their coming-of-age stories, and they are holding their leaders accountable for action on the climate crisis. They are the ones who stand to lose everything. In Part III of Treading Water we echo the urgency and stand by the most important crisis of our time.