Teens and tweens sue United States over climate change

They claim government acts that promote the use of fossil fuels deny basic rights to them and future generations

Twenty-one young people — including Levi Draheim, 11, from Satellite Beach, Fla. — have sued the U.S. government for actions that they say contributed to climate change.

Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust

Levi Draheim is just 11 years old. Yet he and 20 other young people have sued the U.S. government. Their case centers on actions that foster climate change. For more than a century, human activities have been increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That increase has triggered a huge host of effects globally, from changes in weather to ice melting at the poles.

Levi lives in Satellite Beach, Fla. He had to leave his home because of strong hurricanes. Heavy rains flooded the town’s streets. And he had trouble breathing during red tides. A red tide can develop when harmful ocean algae grow out of control.

Climate change is making these events more frequent or more severe. Levi and his family also have another climate-change-related problem. Sea level is rising. “If climate change worsens, the barrier island that I live on will be gone,” he explains.

The young people say the U.S. government allowed and continues to encourage the use of fossil fuels. Burning those fuels emits greenhouse gases, driving climate change. The youths want the government to rein in that pollution — now. And so they filed suit against the government in 2015.

The case has had multiple delays. The government initially asked the trial court to throw out the case. The court said no. The government complained to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That court reviews federal court decisions from several western states. That court said the case could go ahead, and the Supreme Court agreed. Both sides did work to get ready for trial. Experts filed reports. Lawyers asked witnesses questions under oath. The government again tried to get the case thrown out without a trial. Again, the trial court said no. The Ninth Circuit refused to step in and stop a trial.

Finally, trial was set to start on October 29, 2018. But on October 19, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts told the trial court to hold up. The youths’ lawyers objected. On November 2, the Supreme Court finally agreed that the trial can go forward. Right now, there is no way to predict precisely when that will happen.

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Peg Hunter/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
This October 29 rally at a federal courthouse in San Francisco, Calif., was held to protest a delay in the Juliana v. United States court case. Legal action that had delayed the trial has now been lifted.

Threats to life, liberty and property

The U.S. government has known for decades that fossil-fuel emissions lead to climate change, says lawyer Phil Gregory. Based in Redwood, Calif., he’s one of the lawyers for the young people in their lawsuit. Yet despite that knowledge, the government “allows and enables those emissions” in a variety of ways, he says. It issues permits for drilling oil and mining coal. It leases some public lands to fossil-fuel companies. It gives the fossil-fuel industry tax breaks or other types of financial help. It lets places that burn fossil fuels release greenhouse gases directly into the air.

Taken together, these government actions endanger the plaintiffs’ lives, liberties and property, the youths claim in their lawsuit. In Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, 19-year old Nathan Baring faces more severe ice storms and bad air quality from summer wildfires. Jaime Butler, 17, of Flagstaff, Ariz., had to move from her home on a Navajo reservation because of water shortages. Climate change will bring even more severe droughts to her region. More severe storms and other extreme weather threaten 20-year old Sophie Kivlehan of Allentown, Pa. Others in the suit are similarly affected by climate change.   

These plaintiffs — the people bringing the lawsuit — say the government’s actions violate basic rights under the U.S. Constitution. They also make a claim under what’s known as the public trust doctrine. It says the government must protect essential natural resources, such as air and water. Such protections should be for the good of everyone living now and in the future.

Government lawyers claim the law does not allow the youths’ claims. They also say the plaintiffs won’t be able to prove that the government’s actions have caused any specific harm to these children.

The lawsuit is a bit unusual. For instance, it doesn’t seek money for personal injuries. Instead, it claims that the government’s actions threaten the plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty. And it wants the government to make and follow a science-based plan to rein in climate change.

Gregory, the lawyer, compares the climate change case to Brown v. Board of Education. In that 1954 Supreme Court case, experts described how separate schools based on race are inherently harmful to minority students. And the court agreed that it was unconstitutional. In the new lawsuit, “science shows that continued burning of fossil fuels will cause harm,” Gregory says. His plaintiffs say the Constitution forbids the government from taking actions that foster that harm. And they say the government must protect the planet for people now and in the future.

A photo of Jaime Butler against a dark sky.
Jaime Butler worries that climate change will bring more severe droughts to the area where her tribe lives. Springs in the area are drying up, and she worries it will be harder for them to take part in traditional Navajo ceremonies. Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust
A photo of Nathan Baring standing outside in front of tall narrow evergreen trees.
Nineteen-year-old Nathan Baring lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Climate change impacts that affect his area include more severe ice storms and bad air quality from wildfires. Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust
A photo of Vic Barrett standing in front of a body of water on a sunny day. She is looking to her left.
Vic Barrett of White Plains, N.Y., worries about the climate change impacts of sea level rise and more severe storm surges. Her home lost power and schools and transportation in her area shut down after Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust
A photo of Sophie Kivlehan standing outside in fron of a scenic background.
Climate change will likely make severe storms stronger and more frequent, and that worries Sophie Kivlehan of Allentown, Pa. Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust
A photo of Miko Vergun sitting in chair and facing the viewer.
Miko Vergun of Beaverton, Ore., was born on the low-lying island of Majuro. It and other islands in the Pacific Ocean are at risk of disappearing due to sea level rise. Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust

Science is key

John Walsh is a climate scientist at the International Arctic Research Center. It’s part of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. “From the science side, there’s high confidence that climate is changing,” Walsh says. And extreme events such as strong hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and floods from rains “are going to become more frequent in the future.” He adds, “The path that we follow with emissions of our greenhouse gases will make a real difference in future climate.”

Walsh isn’t participating in the lawsuit. But other climate scientists can be found among the reports from the 21 expert witnesses whose statements have been filed in the case. These include climate scientist James Hansen, who heads up the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. That’s in New York City. Hansen is also Sophie’s grandfather.

Government actions on fossil-fuel use have “floored the emissions accelerator” for greenhouse gases, Hansen says in his expert report. That action hurdles the natural world toward points where future actions won’t be able to stop negative effects from occurring. The plaintiffs are therefore threatened by these actions, he says. And their plight won’t improve without major and timely action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The experts have each highlighted different effects of climate change. Kevin Trenberth is a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. Climate change is already a factor in extreme weather, his expert report says. If people don’t cut back on emitting greenhouse gases, he wrote, “the security and lives of young people and future generations are and will be increasingly threatened by ever more extreme weather events.”

Frank Ackerman is an economist with Synapse Energy Economics in Cambridge, Mass. The government has “dismissed or devalued the serious harm from climate change that young people and future generations will experience,” his expert report says. In his view, that discriminates against young people today and in the future.

And climate change will also have health impacts. Lise Van Susteren is a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C. Climate-change impacts “harm children, not just physically, but psychologically,” her expert report says.

The plaintiff’s lawyers have asked the court to schedule a hearing so that the trial can move forward. The young people believe their case is strong.

As Levi explains: “Science is still on our side.”

Kathiann Kowalski reports on all sorts of cutting-edge science. Previously, she practiced law with a large firm. Kathi enjoys hiking, sewing and reading. She also enjoys travel, especially family adventures and beach trips.

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