Kids take a stand for climate change
They can't vote yet. But dozens of young people want a say in the planet's future. So minors nationwide have been suing states and the federal government. They want to push action on climate change.
They say their generation will bear the brunt of global warming. They say government at every level has a duty to protect natural resources. That includes the atmosphere. It is a "public trust" for future generations, the young folks argue.
The Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children's Trust has been leading efforts to file lawsuits or administrative petitions in every state and against the federal government. Some of the youth-led cases have been called off. Others are pending in states. Those states include Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Oregon.
"None of them have gotten to the finish line," said Michael Gerrard. He is a professor and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. It is located at Columbia University. The school is in New York City. "It's an uphill climb. The U.S. courts have so far not wanted to set climate policy."
Other experts say it's unclear how a state can fight a global problem.
In Seattle, eight activists between the ages of 10 and 15 petitioned Washington state last year. They want the state to adopt stricter science-based rules. That is to protect them against climate change. The case has been moving through a state court.
"We're the ones who have to live with it if the oceans are acidic and the planet is 5 degrees warmer," said Gabriel Mandell. He is 13. Mandell is an eighth-grader and plaintiff in the case. "The snowpack is melting. Ocean is acidifying. The Earth is warming. Everything that can go wrong is going wrong. And we need to fix it."
Mandell and other youths are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. They argue that Washington state has failed to reduce carbon emissions based on the best available science. They say the government has violated its duties under the state constitution. And, they cite the legal principle called the public trust doctrine. The doctrine requires the government to protect shared resources.
The state said that the Washington Department of Ecology was working on adopting a rule to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
"Climate change is the most important environmental problem," said Stu Clark. He is Washington's air quality program manager. "We need to do whatever we can. We are doing what we can with what we have."
Nationwide, the cases need to pass certain legal hurdles. Those include showing that the public trust doctrine applies to the Earth's atmosphere. Or that the children have standing to sue. The cases have cleared some hurdles but not all, said Gerrard.
"I don't think this litigation is going to be successful because climate change is a global problem. And it's not clear what a state could do," added Richard Stewart. He is a law professor at New York University. "A state could do certain things. But it can only make an infinitesimal contribution" to a global problem.
In Oregon, two Eugene teens are appealing after a state judge rejected their petition in May. The judge ruled that Oregon's public trust doctrine does not apply to the atmosphere, water, beaches and shorelines.
On August, 21 youths across the country sued the federal government. They said that approval of fossil fuel development has violated the fundamental right of citizens to be free from government actions that harm life, liberty and property.
The EPA did not comment on specifics of the lawsuit. But it said in a statement that President Obama and the agency have been taking action to "give our kids and grandkids the cleaner, safer future they deserve."
Aji Piper is 15. He is a Seattle high school sophomore. He is a plaintiff in that case and the one in Washington state.
"The government isn't doing the best to assure that we have the best quality of life," he said. "It holds more urgency for us. Our future is at hand."
The Washington case has gone the farthest. That is because a judge in King County Superior Court will be hearing arguments on the petition's merits, rather than on a procedural or jurisdictional issue, said Julia Olson. She is executive director for Our Children's Trust.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How can kids make a stronger argument than adults?
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