Waging Climate Court Battle, Brave Youth Refuse 'To Watch Government Do Nothing'
Lawsuit demanding action on climate change could set precedent for preserving 'fundamental rights' to clean air
A cadre of young climate activists packed a Seattle, Washington courtroom on Tuesday to hear oral arguments in a case that they say could change the course of their futures.
The trial is over the refusal by the Department of Ecology (DOE), which oversees state environmental laws, to set a cap on carbon emissions. And eight young teens who showed up for its opening day were more than just spectators—they were plaintiffs.
"We're the ones who have to live with it if the oceans are acidic and the planet is 5 degrees warmer," said Gabriel Mandell, 13. "The snowpack is melting. Ocean is acidifying. The Earth is warming. Everything that can go wrong is going wrong, and we need to fix it."
Zoe Foster, 12, added, "Kids understand the threats climate change will have on our future. I'm not going to sit by and watch my government do nothing. We don't have time to waste. I'm petitioning my government to take real action on climate, and I won't stop until change is made."
In a case brought by the youth-focused nonprofit Our Children's Trust, based in Oregon, the petitioners argue that they presented the DOE with current scientific data on climate change and petitioned the agency to consider statewide emissions reductions to 350 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the century to help Washington do its part in curbing climate change. But the DOE denied their requests, even after an initial ruling in May that ordered the agency to reconsider the petition.
"I'm not going to sit by and watch my government do nothing."
—Zoe Foster, 12
Now the kids are back in court. Any further delay on the case risks their right to a livable future, they said Tuesday.
And according to some legal experts, the decision could set a precedent for similar cases taking off around the country.
"Under the law, the people of this state, including the kids who have brought this case, have a fundamental right to a healthy environment," said Andrea Rodgers, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center who is representing the plaintiffs. "Faced with the increasing harms posed by climate destabilization and ocean acidification, the young people brought this lawsuit to vindicate this right on behalf of themselves and future generations."
"These brave kids have worked extremely hard to present Ecology with the most current and best available climate science, all of which the agency has ignored," Rodgers continued. "It is now time for the court to step in and direct Ecology to initiate a rulemaking process based on the best available science—not the most convenient policy—to protect these youths' fundamental rights."
"Ecology's legal obligations to protect the air and water resources in this state are clear; now it is up to the judge to enforce those laws," Rodgers said.
The DOE is currently relying on 2008 standards to create its current emission reduction targets of 399ppm. But the agency has also previously admitted that those standards "should be adjusted to better reflect the current science" and "need to be more aggressive in order for Washington to do its part to address climate risks."
Another plaintiff, 15-year-old Aji Piper, said Tuesday, "It is my future. You know, there’s these things that you just—you lose them and then it’s really hard to get them back."
Our Children's Trust filed similar lawsuits and legal actions in a number of states around the country. The group's executive director, Julia Olsen, said Washington is obligated by law to protect shared natural resources such as fresh air.
"[T]hese young people have the right to a healthful environment...how you protect that right depends on the science and what scientists are telling us is happening to our climate system," Olsen said.
"The young people brought this lawsuit to vindicate this right on behalf of themselves and future generations."
—Andrea Rodgers, attorney
As Christine Wood, a professor of environmental law and founding director of the University of Oregon's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program, explained to Cascadia Weekly, "In Washington, there are very strong public trust cases affirming the public's right to protect crucial resources."
Judge Hollis R. Hill is expected to issue a decision before the end of the year.