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Meet The Teens Suing The U.S. Government Over The Climate Crisis

'I think [the U.S. government] understands that if this case is tried on the facts, they lose'

By Jessica Suriano 

Vic Barrett has a tattoo of the level of carbon emissions that were in the atmosphere the year he was born – a constant reminder of why he dedicates his time and energy to climate crisis activism.

The 20-year-old is one of the 21 youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States, a lawsuit against the federal government that alleges the powers that be have failed to protect the next generation from the consequences of climate change. The plaintiffs, now ages 11 to 23 and who live all across the country, are arguing that the U.S. government and the past 10 presidential administrations have knowingly infringed on their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by perpetuating climate change with “deliberate indifference” for over 50 years.

The young trailblazers are fed up with seeing the land around them burn, flood, acidify and erode, so they decided to sue in 2015. Now, four years later, they might actually see their case go to trial.

They’re asking for the U.S. government to stop subsidizing and licensing the fossil fuel industry and to develop a plan to reduce carbon and stabilize the climate by 2050, which the government says is hard to do. But Andrea Rodgers, one of three attorneys litigating the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, told MTV News that a solution is not that difficult. Her team is working with experts who have already shown it’s economically and technically feasible for the country to decarbonize, she explained, but the difficulty will be finding what pathways the federal government will take to make that change a reality. She said the public also needs to be ready and prepared to help implement the transition to a new energy system.

“Life is hard these days, particularly for young people, and people are trying — struggling — to pay the rent and to pay their bills,” she said. “And so, a problem like climate change can be overwhelming. It is for all of us. But I think we just have to recognize that this is real, that this is happening, and we have to change our ways.”

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The plaintiffs and their legal team have accumulated a massive amount of evidence to prove their argument: Over 30,000 pages of expert reports from 23 of the world’s top scientists, physicians, and energy experts supporting the plaintiffs, as well as supportive petitions known as amicus briefs from environmental justice organizations, public health experts, several members of the U.S. Congress, the Sierra Club, and more.

When the case was initially filed in Eugene, Oregon, in 2015, many doubted its chances at proceeding through the court system because it wasn’t clear if constitutional protections to life extended to a stable climate. But the plaintiffs persisted, and after the government’s first attempt to dismiss the case in November 2015, a turning point came nearly a year later. Oregon District Judge Ann Aiken wrote in a November 2016 opinion that the plaintiffs had standing to pursue a constitutional claim to federal climate action.

“[Judge Aiken’s] reasoning is that if the due process clause is to mean anything, it must mean that you have the right to live in a climate that is stable and it is not going to destroy your life, liberty or property,” Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at UCLA told MTV News. “And no court has ever recognized that before.”

Finally, the plaintiffs felt validation for their cause. All of them have seen the effects of climate change in their hometowns, from rising annual temperatures, to worsening water and air quality, to increasingly severe storms and flooding.

When Hurricane Sandy arrived in his hometown of White Plains, New York, Barrett saw first-hand how lives turned upside down — especially the lives of those residing in public housing that was built in areas more susceptible to flooding.

The youngest plaintiff, Levi Draheim, said the thought of losing his hometown of Satellite Beach, Florida, due to rising sea levels has made him “anxious, sad, and angry.”

“I was only 8 years old when I filed this case and I am so frustrated that we haven’t had our trial yet,” he wrote in a declaration to the court in February 2019, when he was 11 years old. “I am impatient because I’m a kid, and I have spent almost a quarter of my life working on this case, something that should have been done before I was even born because my government has known about climate change for so long.”

Plaintiff Nathan Baring, 19, said rising temperatures and coastal erosion are diminishing Alaska’s “Arctic identity” of frigid winter seasons and wreaking irreparable damage indigenous communities, whose land is being damaged disproportionately to the rest of the state, and the country at large. From his perspective, the conversations surrounding the climate crisis need to include places like his hometown of Fairbanks and regions like Appalachia, which are extremely dependent on the oil industry.

“I think the key thing about the lawsuit is saying, we have known about this — we've known about what we are doing, how we are accelerating the pace of global warming to an unprecedented pace, which is moving too fast for us and the natural world to keep up,” he told MTV News. “It is essentially that those in power have blatantly ignored that and actively worked against that knowledge for decades and that's at the expense of us having the same rights to life, liberty, and property that they had when they were young and when they became adults.”

In his declaration to the court, 19-year-old Journey Zephier explained that his family’s food security, health, safety, and cultural practices in Kaua‘i, Hawai’i, are all threatened by the unstable climate. Access to clean drinking water is decreasing, coral reefs are dying, and extreme weather events are displacing his family and others from their houses, he wrote in February.

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“I think [the U.S. government] understands that if this case is tried on the facts, they lose,” Rodgers said.

The federal government has already tried to delay or dismiss the case 13 times, during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Baring said the length of time it’s taken the case to go to trial is telling of how far the government has gone to delay it, and that the administration recognizes going to trial could mean problems for their defense.

“Even getting to trial is a huge step in legal history because we are essentially putting climate science on trial, and as our lawyer Julia Olson says, ‘Facts are facts and alternative facts are perjury in a courtroom,’” Baring explained.

While it’s been scientifically proven human actions are causing climate change, defending the right to a stable climate is not as straightforward in the justice system. This is, in part, because the Constitution was adopted before the study of environmental law, so a safe environment was not explicitly included as a Constitutional right, Carlson said. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have since adopted rights within their individual constitutions to a preserved environment, but the federal Constitution is much more difficult to amend.

While the Trump administration is not known for its proclivity for facts-based discussions of the climate crisis, it’s worth noting that past administrations still contributed to policies that perpetuated climate change regardless of partisanship, according to Rodgers.

“What all of these administrations have in common is that emissions keep on rising because their policies facilitate the use of fossil fuels,” she said. “And they do that even though they've all been warned of the danger of that approach.”

Who the sitting president was at the time the case started or who the president is now was not the priority for the plaintiffs.

Instead, the case is “more generally about failure of federal government to sufficiently protect the climate and also its continuing to support the fossil fuel industry through permitting, licensing, and subsidizing the fossil fuel industry in various ways,” Carlson said.

The public affairs office of the U.S. Department of Justice sent MTV News a statement from Jeffrey Clark, the assistant attorney general, that  “...making such important decisions about the Nation’s energy and climate policy is entrusted to elected officials, not the courts.”

In an opening brief delivered in February 2019, the Department of Justice called the plaintiffs’ actions “misguided,” “baseless,” and “misplaced.” Included in the Department’s argument is that the plaintiffs can’t connect the consequences of the climate crisis to “particular conduct by the government,” and that the courts do not have the power to create remedies or solutions for what the plaintiffs are demanding: changing the models of national energy production and consumption.

On June 4 in Oregon, both sides presented oral arguments to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. During these arguments, Carlson said the question that seemed to be at the forefront of the judges’ minds was what tangible remedies for reducing fossil fuel use would look like, and how they would be applied in the real world, should the case move forward. Now, the young activists are waiting to see if they will go to trial, but Rodgers said the decision could take months.

Whether or not the plaintiffs win their case, they’ve already changed the conversation around the importance of climate change — and what’s at stake if it’s not taken seriously — more than any other court case has in the past, according to Carlson.

A legal victory is critical, however, considering the climate crisis is accompanied by such an urgent time constraint, Rodgers said.

“Without the judicial branch recognizing that there are fundamental rights at stake and seeing this issue as a human rights issue, I fear we won't surmount it,” she said.

Rodgers hopes the engagement the country is seeing from these plaintiffs and many other youth-led movements will carry into the outcome of the next election.

“I think we're desperate to restore our democratic system of government,” she said.

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And while young people have been left out of the current systems of power, both Baring and Barrett will be eligible to vote in the presidential election for the first time this year. (Pew Research Center projected that one-in-ten eligible voters in the 2020 election will be members of Generation Z, a six percent increase from the previous election.) Both told MTV News that climate-crisis policy will be one of the deciding factors in who earns their votes.

“You can't be a presidential candidate running right now and not have a plan or have something to say about climate change because young people have been stepping up all over the country and all over the world to show that it's one of our top priorities,” Barrett said.

While youth activism is incredibly important, Barrett acknowledges that some young people might find it inaccessible. And while the plaintiffs have spent years and faced insurmountable burnout in the process of taking on the federal government, the importance of the mission to change the world always outweighs the thought of giving up their fight.

The plaintiffs have also formed a unique family; some have even traveled across the country to be each other’s prom dates. And while all 21 plaintiffs are from many backgrounds, Barrett said their identities, shared and different, are what propel them to work toward a common goal.

“I'm Afro-indigenous, I'm Latinx, I'm black, I'm queer, and I'm young,” he said. “And I think that every single one of those things, which are a lot of the intersections that people in my generation are facing, is what makes us so empathetic — this upbringing. We've always been in need of protection in some way from systems that exist and things that are going on. And I think that's why my generation feels so moved to protect what we have.”

To support these plaintiffs and their mission to reduce America’s use of fossil fuels, they urge you to call, email and tweet your legislators to publicly endorse the case. The plaintiffs have made that easy to do by launching a web page for their #Congress4Juliana campaign. The site will automatically load your state legislators’ contact information and pre-written tweets and emails to them once you enter your home address.