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Young people sue Uncle Sam in the trial of the century

  • Jan Maher Jan Maher



Tuesday, November 20, 2018

“America the Beautiful” has a second, rarely sung verse. It ends with the phrase “Thy liberty in law.” 

Twenty-one youth plaintiffs in the Juliana v. United States law suit are seeking that liberty in law, looking to the federal courts to make their case. They’re calling it the “Trial of the Century,” and if they win, it certainly would qualify for the honor. They assert that the U. S. government, through its actions in creating a national energy system that causes climate change, has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources. (The public trust doctrine holds that the government owns and is obligated to protect certain natural resources and that they must be preserved for public use.)

Many of the young plaintiffs have already had their lives seriously disrupted by climate change, and all have seen changes that have made their lives and the lives of their families more difficult.

Here are a few representative voices: 

Miko V., one of the young plaintiffs, stresses the urgency of the planetary crisis. “We have to stop going about our lives as if nothing is happening.” Born in the Marshall Islands, she now lives in Oregon but works to protect the culture of her people and their land itself from disappearing. 

Levi D., the youngest of the group, lives on a barrier island in Florida that is only 13 feet above sea level. “I work hard to protect the environment and animals near my home, he says. “I want my government to work hard to protect my future and the future of the animals and ecosystems in our country.”

The land in Hawaii where Journey Z and his family live will be mostly under water by the end of the century as well. Flooding has already destroyed the home of Jayden F’s family in Louisiana, where she notes that not only have they survived the sort of flood that presumably only happens once in a thousand years, they “have had eight 500-year floods in less than two years.”

Meanwhile, in Nathan B’s home town of Fairbanks, severe ice storms are becoming the norm and in 2014 left his family without power in 18-degree weather for nearly a week. The following year, air quality —due to surrounding forest fires — was on a par with the world’s smoggiest cities, making it hard for Nathan, an asthmatic, to breathe.

Sahara V, too, has had her asthma exacerbated by the increased frequency of forest fires in Oregon.

These youth and their fellow plaintiffs are acutely aware that climate change affects young people more than any of the rest of us, but that young people have had the least to say about it because most of them are not yet voting age. “The actions those in power take and the decisions they make today will determine the kind of world future generations inherit,” Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. an indigenous environmental activist and hip hop artist, points out.

Though it was initially filed in 2015, the suit is only now actually coming to trial. Both the Obama administration and the Trump administration have repeatedly attempted to block or delay it. Initially, representatives of the fossil fuel and manufacturing industries that rely on fossil fuels joined sides with the defendants, i.e., the government; however, when the plaintiffs’ case was allowed to move forward and they realized they would be required to testify under oath about what they knew and when they knew it, they dropped out.

At every step of the way, the government has tried to stall or invalidate the trial, but so far, at every step of the way, the courts have found that the youth do indeed have the right to make their case. As of October 26, however, the plaintiffs are awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court about whether yet another last-minute effort of the government to derail the trial will win out over all the previous court decisions. Once scheduled for October 29, the trial is now off the court docket awaiting that decision. 

The delay comes on the heels of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which has sounded the most urgent alarm yet about how little time we have to turn climate change around.

“Our earth will be here for millennia,” Victoria B. points out, “it’s up to us to decide if humanity will be too.” Says lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, “Youth aren’t the future. We are the now.” 

Greenfield resident Jan Maher is a writer, educator, and member of Greening Greenfield.