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In a federal courthouse in Oregon on Tuesday, 21 youths and their supporters argued that by failing to act on climate change, the U.S. government has violated the youngest generation's constitutional rights.
"I feel like I have to go to court, because my little brother can't speak for himself, he's too little. But I can speak for him, and for everyone in my generation. It's time we were heard. It's time President Obama protects our future, and my little brother's future."
—Jayden Foytlin, 13-year-old plaintiff
With Big Oil behind it, the government, in turn, has sought to dismiss the case, which has been called "the most important lawsuit on the planet right now."
The plaintiffs, currently aged 9-20, scored a win in April when U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin decided the case could proceed.
On Tuesday, the kids and their attorneys hoped that U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken would agree.
As John D. Sutter wrote in his profile of plaintiffs' attorney Julia Olson for CNN, the goal is to get Aiken, "a Bill Clinton appointee, to feel the weight of the court's responsibility to do what other branches of government so far have failed to do: Create a national plan to get greenhouse gas emissions to levels that scientists consider safe."
Some legal scholars consider the climate kids' case to be a long shot. Olson will argue that the federal government, by failing to adequately regulate greenhouse gas pollution and by continuing to lease new federal lands and waters for fossil fuel extraction, as recently as this year, is violating the kids' constitutional right to life, liberty, and property. (Warming is causing the seas to rise, for example, and one plaintiff lives in coastal Florida). She'll also claim that children are a class that's being discriminated against when it comes to climate change: They're not causing this problem, and yet they will be disproportionately subjected to its dire consequences.
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The Stakes Have Never Been Higher.
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Consider 13-year-old plaintiff Jayden Foytlin, a resident of Rayne, Louisiana. For her, Tuesday's hearing comes just one month after the waters from a catastrophic 1,000-year flood "crept into her bedroom in the middle of the night and destroyed most of her family's home," as Our Children's Trust, the group behind the suit, said in a statement.
"They called it a thousand-year flood, meaning it should only happen every thousand years or so," Foytlin said ahead of the hearing. "But in my state—Louisiana—we have had that 1,000-year flood and eight 500-year floods in less than two years. A few weeks ago I literally stepped out of bed and was up to my ankles in climate change."
She continued: "Soon I will leave my home, which is still a mess—no walls, no carpet, even my little brothers toys were destroyed! But I feel like I have to go to court, because my little brother can't speak for himself, he's too little. But I can speak for him, and for everyone in my generation. It's time we were heard. It's time President Obama protects our future, and my little brother's future."
As John Light explained on Tuesday for BillMoyers.com:
The aim of the suit is to have a court—the Supreme Court, if the suit advances that far through the legal system—to require the federal government to address climate change more aggressively through laws and regulations. Lawyers in the case draw comparisons to the federal response to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that required the desegregation of schools. In that case, "judges found there were fundamental constitutional rights to equality and courts supervised the enforcement of those rights," Mary Christina Wood, a law professor at the University of Oregon, told BillMoyers.com last year. Our Children's Trust is hoping for a similar outcome on the issue of climate change.
A press conference will be held after the hearing, around 12pm PDT. Updates were being shared from inside and outside the courthouse on social media under the hashtag #kidsvgov: