EUGENE, Ore.—‘The most important lawsuit on the planet right now’ was born in a small, unassuming office on a tree-lined street in the liberal Oregon city of Eugene.
The office is home to Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit founded in 2010 to bring coordinated legal actions on behalf of young people to hold governments accountable for reducing emissions to levels scientists say we need to protect our climate.
Last year, the group filed a landmark lawsuit on behalf of 21 young people against the federal government over its affirmative acts encouraging the fossil fuel industry and its failure to act to reduce carbon emissions. In September, a federal judge heard arguments on the case and is expected to issue a ruling on whether or not the case will move forward by November. (The government could keep fighting the case all the way to the Supreme Court, or since it’s a civil case they could settle out of court—not for money—but both parties agreeing to what the 21 youth are after, a comprehensive national plan to quickly reduce emissions.)
The U.S. government has known for at least 50 years that carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels would cause climate change and endanger future generations, argue the plaintiffs. Despite that, the government has not only failed to take action to reduce emissions but has continued policies of allowing fossil fuel exploitation.
In doing so, the federal government has violated their generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, and failed to protect public trust resources including the atmosphere.
According to the plaintiffs, there is no political will to do what is needed to slow the effects of climate change before it’s too late—so the courts must step in to force action.
“We have literally no time to wait—we need brave action from a judge right now,” said 20-year-old plaintiff Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, who is from Eugene. The other 20 plaintiffs come from all over the United States, including many areas already heavily impacted by the effects of climate change such a Florida and Louisiana.
“We’re asking for a change in the system, an end to prioritizing the needs of the fossil fuel industry, and upholding the rights of young people,” Juliana said.
When she was 15 years old, Juliana was a co-plaintiff in an earlier lawsuit filed by Our Children’s Trust against the state of Oregon to force it to cut carbon emissions. The group has launched similar actions in all 50 states, and also works on global legal actions.
Our Children’s Trust fits in perfectly in progressive Eugene—which features on many online listicles for the ‘best cities for hippies.’
The staff of 10 bike to work almost every day in an effort to reduce their individual carbon footprints. That’s part of an organizational policy that staff members commit to be mindful of the emissions they are contributing to the problem.
“Our staff is passionate about climate change, and they’re all completely committed to dedicating their work and careers to solving climate change,” said Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust.
Besides being conscious of their carbon footprints, the staff stays up to date on the latest climate science.
“Everyone really does read the science, not just the media’s reporting of the science, but reading the scientific articles that come out and keeping up with that,” Olson said.
Despite the despair that can be caused by reading up on the latest scientific reports about climate change—including recent research that showed the world is locked into 400 parts per million (ppm) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the foreseeable future—“we don’t shut down,” Olson said.
“We’re trying to work through that and find solutions that will really make a difference because we don’t believe we can compromise,” Olson said.
Compromises and piecemeal approaches thwarted Olson’s early work aimed at stopping individual fossil fuel industry projects.
In 2003, Olson worked on a case challenging a project on the border of California and Mexico. A U.S. company was going to build power plants in Mexico, transport natural gas from the U.S. to the plants via pipeline, and bring the energy back to the U.S. on transmission lines over the border.
“The whole thing was to avoid an environmental review in the U.S. and avoid all of our Clean Air Act requirements by producing the energy in Mexico and shipping all the energy back to the U.S.,” Olson said.
She worked with a coalition of Mexicans and Americans who opposed the project and filed a lawsuit based on the fact that the company had not done a climate change analysis as part of its environmental review—which only covered the pipeline and transmission lines, not the impacts of pollution from the plants.
Olson’s team won the first round, and the company was forced to do a second environmental review. They challenged the project a second time, but lost on the second case.
“That’s pretty typical…it’s like these projects have nine lives,” Olson said.
“I call it whack-a-mole, you’re just trying to beat down all of these projects and play defense,” Olson said.
With Our Children’s Trust’s state and federal cases, Olson said they are challenging the whole system rather than one project at a time.
The federal lawsuit targets all of the major departments and agencies in the federal government that play a role in energy supply and production—including the White House—and the pollution control side of the coin—including the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The federal government has authorized, promoted, and supported every aspect of our dependence on fossil fuels and it really is a culprit in causing this problem and locking in climate pollution and suppressing alternative options,” Olson said.
“Rather than challenge the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL and this new facility for LNG in this and that place, we’re going after the whole system collectively,” Olson said.
The goal of the federal lawsuit is to shut down new fossil fuel extraction projects and to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built.
It would also force the government to come up with a comprehensive national plan to quickly reduce emissions. The science-based goal is to have the U.S. at least 95% off of fossil fuels by 2050, which experts say is possible.
President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 proposed the Clean Power Plan, a national framework for states to set their own goals to cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30%. It’s not a federal plan, Olson said, and emissions reductions goals are not science-based and don’t go far enough.
The plan follows Obama’s theory that incremental changes can make a difference, Olson said, but unfortunately there isn’t time for incrementalism.
“Some climate change impacts are locked in, but if we started tomorrow with what’s already technologically available and economically achievable, economist Jeffrey Sachs said it’s a bargain—with just 1% of our national income we could solve this problem,” Olson said.
What’s lacking, however, is the political will to enact those changes, Olson said.
“People don’t understand how easy it would be to switch (to renewable energy) and stop polluting. All that’s lacking is political will and the emergency mobilization to make it happen — that’s why we need court orders to enforce it,” Olson said.
Past court rulings show that systematic change can be forced on state and federal governments by the judiciary, Olson said. Some examples are Brown vs. The Board of Education, which desegregated schools, and Brown vs. Plata, which forced California to reduce its prison population.
Climate-related court victories have been sparse to-date. However, in 2014, Rhode Island Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter dropped all charges against two climate activists who had blocked a large shipment of coal from reaching New England’s biggest power station.
Sutter told the media afterwards that his decision was in the interest of the people of Bristol County.
“Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,” Sutter said.
“In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking,” Sutter told the press.
Rapid, court-enforced action is what is needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change, said James Hansen, a former NASA climate scientist and adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University.
Hansen is acting as a plaintiff in the case along with his 18-year-old granddaughter Sophie Kivlehan.
“Quietly, with minimal objection from the scientific community, the assumption that young people will somehow figure out a way to undo the deeds of their forebears, has crept into and spread like a cancer,” a paper released on Oct. 4 by Hansen and other leading scientists entitled, ‘Young People’s Burden,’ said.
The government defense in the case has argued that the government could only be blamed for creating danger for young people if it had taken “affirmative action” to create that danger, Hansen said in the paper.
“Apparently, as Julia Olson points out, they do not want to count the permits for extraction, drilling, exports, and imports, transmission lines and pipelines, all to accommodate the fossil fuel energies, as part of the totality of national energy policies that the defendants are responsible for,” the paper said.
Global average temperatures are already 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. Sea levels were 20-30 feet higher the last time the planet was this warm, Hansen said in a video with his granddaughter released along with the paper.
Despite the damage already done, it's still possible to keep the temperature rise below the ‘safe’ 1.5 C, Hansen said.
It’s possible to reduce emissions by several percent each year, Hansen said in the video. The Dutch government is preparing a plan to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 because of a successful lawsuit by citizens against the government, Hansen said.
Still, even with significant emissions reductions, carbon extraction from the atmosphere will likely be necessary. The technology for such action has not been developed yet, and could cost trillions of dollars, Hansen’s granddaughter said in the video.
“They assume today’s young people will do this in the future…that’s not fair,” Kivlehan said.
“How could adults knowingly leave such prospects for young people?” Kivlehan asked in the video.
The 21 youth plaintiffs in the lawsuit come from diverse racial, social, and economic backgrounds. Olson said that many had already been engaging with Our Children’s Trust and some had actually asked to be plaintiffs and to sue the federal government.
“I don’t even know how we ended up with this amazing group of kids,” Olson said, adding that they had to turn down a lot of kids who wanted to join the lawsuit.
Many are on the frontlines of climate change, and have already been impacted by its effects.
Levi Draheim, the youngest plaintiff in the case at nine years old, lives in Indialantic, Florida.
Draheim wakes up with nightmares about sea level rise and what’s happening in his community. He can’t swim in the water he grew up near because of rising levels of toxic algae, and has watched as his neighbors use sandbags to prepare for inundations resulting from climate change.
Thirteen-year-old Jayden Foytlin from Rayne, Louisiana, saw her house ravaged by the recent flooding in the state.
Despite the youths’ experiences, Olson said some critics have questioned what the youth really know about climate change, and have implied the kids have somehow been coerced into the lawsuit.
Eleven-year-old Avery McRae responded to the opinion held by some adults who know about the case that the kids “don’t know anything.”
McRae clarified ‘what she knew’ about climate change, saying, “I know that I have a constitutional right to a stable environment.”
After hearing arguments for the case last month in Oregon, Aiken is expected to issue a ruling on whether the case can proceed by November.
Despite the challenges they face, Juliana said she remains optimistic.
“We’re going up against a lot, our names will forever be a part of this, whether we win or lose,” Juliana said.
“And we’re going to win.”