During high school, most kids are stressing about grades, dreaming up school dances, and trying to stay out of trouble with their parents. However, a courageous group of young Americans are doing something bigger than all of that, something largely unprecedented by minors: suing the federal government. And the world is anxiously watching them make history.
Youth Making History
Back in 2015, twenty one students that were 18 and under brought forward a case with Our Children’s Trust which asserted that the government, in its inadequate actions to address climate change, was violating their constitutional rights. The case is known as Juliana v. US and was originally filed in an Oregon district court.
Kids know what is at stake with the lawsuit, but also with the environment. There is scientific research to suggest that if the Earth is going to continue to safely support life, the levels of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere should be where they were in the 1980s. These children argue that they are the ones that will have to live with the actions of generations before them, generations who mistreated the environment and created living conditions threatening health and well-being. Few people predicted that this would go as far as it has in three years.
While each child has their own reason for being a part of this movement, all of them inspire hope. They are wise in their understanding of what is at stake. One plaintiff, 17-year-old Jaime from Flagstaff, Arizona explained that “This case will ultimately determine the livelihood of my tribe, the Navajo Nation, and all native people in this country.” She wants the courts to understand the urgency and allow the case to move forward to trial.
This is not the first case that has attempted to sue the federal government for regulation of carbon emissions, but it is unique and stands apart from other lawsuits. Instead of using written laws that have been benchmarks to environmental policy in the United States like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, Juliana v. US is arguing on the basis of constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property that is found in the 5th Amendment.
Specifically, this states that, “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of the law.” The lawyers on the case claim that the federal government continues to put lives at stake when it does not diligently regulate emissions, drilling, and other activities that are some of the leading contributors to climate change.
It will not be an easy fight. While most people are in agreement that climate change is a real issue with evidence to back it up, the fault does not really lie with one country and its actions. It could be difficult to prove that if the United States makes a more concerted effort that much, if anything, will change.
Where Do They Stand in the Fight
In their favor, there is a powerful precedent in a recent California prison lawsuit. This particular case, known as Brown v. Plata, was brought forth by lawyers that represented inmates in the California justice system. They sued over the issue of overcrowding in the California prisons, arguing that it violated their constitutional rights. They alleged that overcrowding was a form of cruel and unusual punishment, banned by the Eighth Amendment. In this case, the court actually set a statistical threshold for when overcrowding becomes cruel and unusual punishment, stating that prisons could not be more than 137.5% over capacity. This is a compelling tool at the disposal of the lawyers fighting with the youth for the environment.
All in all, the case has defied all odds thus far. While the Trump Administration has repeatedly attempted to block the case from moving forward, July 30th, 2018 marked a small victory as the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the 21 plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States. It denied the Trump administration’s application for stay and maintained the previously set trial start date of October 29, 2018 for the district court to hear. One of the plaintiffs, 12-year-old Avery said that “The federal government is trying to block our path but we are persevering. We are optimistic and have the courage to keep standing up for our constitutional rights.”
Around the World, Kids Stand Up for the Environment
Legal fights, especially the ones that drag out for a long time, are lead to citizens getting proper access to their rights. As the battles gain popularity and support over time, they build up steam and find ways to carry on until their voices are truly heard and laws change. In a similar way to how Civil Rights were won in the 60s or same-sex marriages became legal, children are taking up the fight for the planet and the right to make it livable for generations to come.
While Juliana v. US is paving the way in the United States, there are other places around the world where changes is happening. Children of Uganda took to the courts in 2012 when its government failed to comply with international climate-change policies. Later in 2015, youth in the Netherlands won their case that the Dutch government was negligent in not properly regulating and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and its overall footprint on the environment. Two other cases with children in Pakistan and India are awaiting further action for their claims of environmental injustices. Earlier in September of 2017, Portuguese kids swarmed the internet to begin crowdfunding to support a lawsuit against 47 governments in the European Court of Human Rights.
As Juliana v. US awaits its day in court, the children plaintiffs are in good company around the world, fighting for the ability to live long healthy lives despite decades of actions to the contrary.