Teens sue federal government over climate change inaction

By David Ferguson
Thursday, May 10, 2012 15:49 EDT
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Climate change photo via Shutterstock
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A group of teenagers from Ventura, California has filed suit against the federal government for its failure to address the risks facing their generation from climate change, according to an article at The Atlantic.com. Led by 18-year-old Alec Loorz and represented pro bono by the law firm of Earth Day co-founder Rep. Paul “Pete” McCloskey (D-CA), the young people feel that they must act now to address a problem that could have drastic consequences for their generation, one that their elders seem frustratingly unwilling to address.

The suit, Alec L, et. al vs. Lisa P. Jackson et. al pits the teens against “not only Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson but the heads of the Commerce, Interior, Commerce, Defense, Energy, and Agriculture departments,” the Atlantic said. It was filed last May in Oregon, but has been moved to Washington, D.C., where it goes before U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Wilkins on Friday, when the defendants will file to have the complaint dismissed.

As far-fetched as it may seem, the lawsuit does have legal grounds under what is known as the “public trust doctrine,” which states that certain resources are preserved for public use, and that the government has a responsibility to maintain these resources. Previously these laws have been used to defend public waterways and shorelines, but now these laws are being applied for the first time to the environment, in what is called Atmospheric Trust Litigation. Oregon attorney Mary Christina Wood, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program at the University of Oregon, has devoted her career to the study of public trust doctrine and how it can be applied to preserve the environment.

Wood’s colleague Julia Olson has also been instrumental in helping the teenagers. She founded an environmental advocacy group called Our Children’s Trust after viewing former Vice President Al Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth when she was seven months pregnant.

Wood and Olson devised the idea of the lawsuit together, drawing inspiration from an early 1990s case in which an attorney representing 43 children successfully sued the Philippine government to stop the logging of its last old-growth forests. Similar suits have followed around the world.

NASA climate scientist and environmental activist James Hansen also serves as an adviser and mentor to the teenagers who are the plaintiffs in the case, which asks the U.S. government to lower the nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions by at least 6 percent beginning in 2013. Hansen became a climate change activist when he became a grandfather. He has drawn up plans for how the government can meet the students’ demands “through cuts in fossil-fuel-powered electricity and reforestation.”

It was Hansen who introduced Wood to Loorz, now a high school student, who was also inspired to activism by An Inconvenient Truth.  He founded the group Kids vs. Global Warming and has traveled the world urging young people to become active in fighting climate change.  He maintains that adults don’t realize how much young people think about climate change and the dangers facing them in the future in terms of rising seas, violent storms, social upheaval and disruptions to the food supply.

According to the Atlantic, “one British survey found that children between the ages of 11 and 14 worry more about climate change (74 percent) than about their homework (64 percent).”

The federal lawsuit is a combination of more than a dozen individual lawsuits from across the country.  Some kids, like Loorz see this as their one chance to stop a potential catastrophe.  ”Sometimes I do ask myself, like is there really any chance to solve this problem?” he said, “I feel a lot of despair sometimes, but when I talk to Dr. Hansen, he says there is still hope, so I have to trust that he knows more than I do about this.”

(image via Shutterstock)

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
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