A wave of youth-led groups are turning to the courts to fight climate change.
By Natasha Geiling
At just 16 years old, Rose Whipple can’t cast a ballot for the kind of lawmaker she strongly believes this country needs: those who will fight for action on climate change. Instead, she’s beholden to the whims of an older voting block, one that tends to vote for politicians who reject climate science and instead saddle up to fossil fuel interests to line their campaign coffers.
Younger generations are more likely than older demographics to accept the science that climate change is both occurring and caused by human activity; but the catch for the youngest generation of all — those who will ostensibly reach adulthood towards the middle of the century — is that they are locked out of traditional political avenues to address the problem.
“It’s sad that youth can’t vote, but all this is affecting us as we grow up,” Whipple told ThinkProgress. “We’re going to have to deal with oil spills and effects from oil spills as adults.”
But Whipple and dozens of other young people like her aren’t willing to sit passively by while politicians and political institutions make little progress on what she considers the most important issue of her generation. Instead, kids are fighting for climate action by turning to the courts — an area where logic, not age, supposedly rules supreme. In a slew of lawsuits and regulatory action, young people are asking the courts to compel state and federal governments, as well as the fossil fuel industry, to consider the consequences of their climate inaction for future generations.
Whipple is one of 13 young Minnesotans who, in May of this year, applied to intervene in the state’s regulatory process regarding Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project. If approved by the state, the project would relocate and expand Enbridge’s existing Line 3 pipeline, which runs from Canada to Wisconsin, allowing it to carry twice as much tar sands oil.
Opponents of the project argue that it would put Minnesota’s natural environment at risk, cut through Indigenous land, and lock in years of dirty, carbon-intensive infrastructure that, in turn, would fuel greater climate change.
The proposed expansion is currently before the Minnesota Public Utility Commission (PUC), which has ultimate say over whether the project gets its required permits or not. As part of that process, Minnesota allows interested parties a right to contest the project, but only if they can prove that the project would directly infringe on their rights. For years, the only groups that were official intervenors in the process were environmental organizations, like Sierra Club, and tribal groups.
Instead of joining forces with one of the existing intervening groups, however, the Climate Youth Intervenors decided that their situation was unique enough to merit their own seat at the table.
In early July, a Minnesota judge agreed that enough of the youth intervenors had demonstrated a direct and particular interest in the case to be granted status as legal intervenors in the process — the first time in history a group of young people has successfully petitioned to represent themselves in a pipeline case before.
“We are the best advocates for our own future. We know ourselves the best, we know our stake in this better than anyone else,” Akilah Sanders-Reed, a 23-year old organizer with Minnesota 350, and a Climate Youth Intervenor, told ThinkProgress. “We are representing ourselves because we can speak for ourselves better than anyone else about this.”
Each of the Youth Climate Intervenors has a unique personal connection to the Enbridge pipeline project and to the urgent need for action on climate change. For Whipple, who is a member of the Lakota tribe, she sees the pipeline as a direct threat to the territorial land of her ancestors, and her ability access that land in the future. Sanders-Reed cites her desire to live in Minnesota for the foreseeable future; she worries about the impact of the pipeline, and a potential oil spill, on property values, and how the expected increase in intense thunderstorms and heatwaves fueled by climate change could threaten her health and safety as she grows older.
But each youth intervenor also knows that when climate scientists talk about a climate-changed future — a future with more intense downpours, or more frequent heat waves — they are talking about a future that each one of them will likely live to see. When climate studies plot out projections 50 or 60 years in the future, that’s well within the expected lifespan of each of these intervenors, all of whom are under the age of 25.
“Every single one of us has specific reasons that we know we are going to be impacted by climate change,” Sanders-Reed said. “The decisions being made right now are going to directly impact our futures and we’re going to have to live with that. But we have been shut out of the process.”
The Climate Youth Intervenors aren’t the only young people using the legal system to make their voices heard on climate change. At the federal level, a group of 21 youth plaintiffs are currently suing the federal government for its climate policies; specifically, they claim that in failing to pass substantive climate action, and by working to boost the fossil fuel industry, the federal government has knowingly endangered these youth’s right to a livable climate.
That case was on its way to trial in February 2018 — having been given the go-ahead by a district court in Oregon after a series of Trump administration appeals — but is now currently on pause as the Ninth Circuit Court considers yet another attempt by the federal government to derail the case.
“We are the best advocates for our own future.”
In its petition to the Ninth Circuit, the Trump administration asked the court to use its supervisory powers to “end this clearly improper attempt to have the judiciary decide important questions of energy and environmental policy to the exclusion of the elected branches of government.”
But Alex Loznak, a 20-year old plaintiff in the case from Roseburg, Oregon, sees the trial as “a matter of life and death” for him and his fellow youth plaintiffs.
“You see the impacts of climate change in a very real, and direct, and personal way,” he told ThinkProgress. “As a young person, climate change isn’t just this theoretical or abstract issue. It’s something that during my lifetime, all of these terrifying projections — when those projections are for 2050, I’ll be 53 years old. If I live to be a very old man, worst-case scenario, I would live to see large swaths of the world becoming uninhabitable.”
One of the major hurdles the youth plaintiffs had to clear before their case could be heard in court was the question of standing, the idea that to bring a suit in court, plaintiffs have to prove that they have or will suffer sustained injury or harm. In addressing the issue of standing, the plaintiffs argued that each one would suffer personal harm from the consequences of climate change — from losing access to food that comes from marine ecosystems threatened by ocean acidification, to losing property due to more intense wildfires.
In a November decision that allowed the case to move forward, Judge Ann Aiken agreed that the plaintiffs could reasonably expect to suffer personal damages if U.S. carbon emissions were not cut, granting them standing necessary to sue. According to Nate Bellinger, a staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, the Oregon-based nonprofit supporting the lawsuit, the fact that young people can reasonably expect to live long enough to see some of the more dire consequences of climate change likely helped the plaintiffs gain standing in this case.
“In their petition to intervene, they walk through all the ways that they are going to be personally impacted by climate change, and some of the impacts are disproportionate to youths,” he said. “There is a growing body of research, for instance, about how young people are growing up with difficult emotional impacts from climate change.”
Still, some legal experts doubt whether youth have better claims to standing in climate litigation than other plaintiffs. One of the most famous examples of climate litigation, for instance, involved an Alaskan village that had literally been displaced by rising sea levels. That case was eventually dismissed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but lower courts also ruled that the village lacked standing to bring the case because it could not demonstrate a “substantial likelihood” in connecting the village’s displacement to actions of fossil fuel companies.
“The age of the plaintiffs does not matter — or at least is has not yet mattered — for the purposes of establishing standing in climate litigation,” Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told ThinkProgress via email. “The standing test requires injury in fact that is concrete and particularized, and actual or imminent. Climate impacts on individuals will or will not satisfy those criteria regardless of their age — though undoubtedly youth plaintiffs do have unique types of harms.”
“As a young person, climate change isn’t just this theoretical or abstract issue.”
But with the Trump administration looking to roll back nearly every climate-related policy from the last eight years, it’s unlikely that the wave of young people turning to the courts for climate action will stop anytime soon. In the last few months, two more groups of young people, one in New Mexico and one in Alaska, have filed petitions to state regulatory bodies, claiming that they are legally obligated to undertake rulemaking to curb carbon emissions.
For Sanders-Reed and the other youth climate intervenors each new petition, or lawsuit, is a chance for young people to make their voices heard.
“I often felt that people don’t realize the extent to which the climate crisis is going to impact our lives,” she said. “I think it’s really important that people do listen to young folks that are going to be suffering these impacts, and take them seriously.”
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