Four years ago, 21 students sued the United States government for contributing to climate change for decades through carbon dioxide emissions. The case made progress in the court system despite the many attempts to block it by the federal government. Last year, however, it came to a screeching halt, leaving the so-called “Climate Kids” frustrated with the process.
According to the non-profit Our Children’s Trust, which represents the young plaintiffs in courts, the government’s decision to use fossil fuels “violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” The plaintiffs demand that the federal government endorse the reduction of carbon emissions. They have attended countless trials since Sept. 10, 2015, and the case has gone as far as the Supreme Court.
The United States government attempted to have the case dismissed since its conception, claiming that the constitution did not specify climate conditions as an inalienable right. The Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment. The government requested multiple stays in the case — a ruling to suspend the court proceeding — but they were repeatedly denied until October 2018, when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts put the case on hold. A month later, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken called for an interlocutory appeal on the case, sending it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Many people involved in the case have become frustrated with the suspension of the trial. Philip Gregory, an attorney supporting the young plaintiffs, has been vocal about his grievances with these setbacks.
“Given the urgency of the climate crisis, and here I’m talking about the scientific evidence that is not contradicted by the federal government, we have an extremely limited amount of time to address this crisis,” Gregory said. “Given the evidence, I am concerned that our courts have delayed addressing this problem.”
Kelsey Juliana, a graduate from the University of Oregon, shared that frustration and urgency. “The process has been taxing on our resources, our time and our energy,” she said.
Juliana and her quest for climate justice have been widely discussed in the media, bringing unexpected attention. Many publications, including the Daily Emerald, The New York Times, 60 Minutes and Vogue magazine, have since told this story of youth working for change.
“I had no idea that the media would be this involved,” Juliana said. “What this really means is that people all over are seeing the multifaceted nature of climate change.” The magnitude of the media’s involvement was a shock to her, but she said she recognizes the benefits of spreading the word and bringing the issues of climate change to the forefront of the legal system.
Juliana is also fighting climate change at the state level in Chernaik v. Brown, a separate case filed against the state of Oregon. According to a press release from Our Children’s Trust, the Oregon Supreme Court will review the case after the appeals court ruled against them in January. The public hearing will take place at David Douglas High School in Portland on Nov. 13, 2019.
For Juliana, the outcome of these cases will determine the future of the planet and those who reside in it — as well as the ability to keep those in charge accountable for their actions and inspire young voices that desire change.
“I would hope, from the bottom of my heart, as an educator, that young people can be aware of their voices,” Juliana said. “We want accountability from the government — from people who continue to play a part in these decisions.”