Why haven’t more people heard about the 21 young people suing the federal government over their right to a stable climate? It’s probably because the voices of young people are not respected in our society and their efforts are disregarded, if not actively suppressed. Twenty-one people now aged 11 to 22 filed a lawsuit in 2015, and after many challenges, Juliana v. United States was set to go to trial beginning Oct. 29 at the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon, and recently was temporarily halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
These young people of different backgrounds come from different regions, including Oregon, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania and New York, and many have been climate activists for years prior to joining the lawsuit. They argue in their complaint that the U.S. government’s policies of promoting fossil fuels, despite knowing for over 50 years that “continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their wellbeing and survival,” deprive them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. They further argue that the government’s policies are “deliberately discriminating against children and future generations … for the economic benefit of present generations of adults.” They seek “an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system.”
As lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana stated in a recent interview with the Eugene, Oregon Register-Guard, “This case helps to address the needs of every single person, and being, on Earth.” On Monday, the plaintiffs issued a response to the Supreme Court clarifying that this case is an issue of “fundamental rights of children and whether the actions of their government have deprived them of their inalienable rights.” While the U.S. is the only UN member state that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, these young people are nonetheless asserting their rights. These bold leaders deserve recognition, and the rest of us need to know what they are doing.
The writer is professor of childhood studies at Hampshire College.