These Kids Are Suing the U.S. Government Over Its Role in Climate Change

There’s no denying it: Climate change is real, and it’s threatening the livelihoods of future generations. And if we’re not going to do enough about it now, it seems like our children are willing to take things into their own hands.

Unsatisfied with the government’s inability to address climate change so far, a group of 21 kids between the ages of 9 and 20 sued the federal government last year saying that the government has failed to take sufficient action to prevent climate change and they are the ones who will pay the price.

In a historic victory last week, a federal judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss, and ruled that the lawsuit could proceed to trial, which paves the way for a possible settlement or other positive changes. Specifically, the students are asking the court to order the federal government to prepare and implement a science-based plan to phase out greenhouse gas emissions and draw out excess greenhouse gases with reforestation and soil sequestration.

(Got all that?)

“The government’s affirmative actions have caused a situation that is infringing upon the plaintiffs’ constitutional and public trust rights,” Nate Bellinger, a staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, told Babble in an email.

In other words: Because the legislative and executive branches of government have failed to address the problem, the courts might be the only option.


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The “Climate Kids,” as the plaintiffs have been called, filed the case against the Obama administration, with help from their attorneys at Children’s Trust. But Trump will automatically become a named defendant when he takes office in January if the case isn’t settled sooner. In fact, the lawsuit could become even more significant under a Trump administration, since the President-elect has called climate change a “hoax,” and threatened to cut back on certain environmental regulations — including environmental executive actions and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“The facts and science overwhelmingly support the plaintiffs’ claims in this case and that will not change with a new president,” said Bellinger.

Bellinger said one of the biggest challenges is time. Because there’s such a narrow window before we cause irreversible environmental damage, there’s a genuine sense of urgency to this case in order to prevent further negative impact. Last week’s historic victory is instrumental in allowing the case to move to trial and increase the likelihood that action will be taken.

The case has captured the interest of environmentalists, academics, scientists, and legal experts around the country. In fact, some have called it the “biggest case on the planet” right now.

“I admire that these kids decided to step up and fight for what is right rather than leaving it up to their government or the adults in their life to fix it,” says Debbie Chizewer, an environmental attorney at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic, who also teaches and writes about climate change. “Their brave action already has set an important precedent because the judge recognized the legitimacy of the case.”

Regardless of how we may feel about last week’s election, these children are showing all us jaded adults that we really can be the change we want to see in the world.

If you’re interested in supporting the climate kids and their lawsuit, Bellinger suggests visiting OurChildrensTrust.org for more information, and signing a petition organized by the plaintiffs that calls on President Obama to settle the case before leaving office. Bellinger also suggested that people follow Our Children’s Trust on social media to learn more about this case and other cases like it, as well as opportunities to get involved.

The Climate Kids aren’t alone in their environmental activism, even if their actions are currently the most high-profile. For instance, a group of high school students in Chicago has also come together to form Chicago Youth Alliance for Climate Action, which takes a hands-on approach to promoting environmental education and engaging with government officials to support climate action. A group of students in DePue, Illinois also regularly advocates for soil testing in their town, which is a Superfund hazardous waste site. (Translation: a polluted location requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contamination. You can see if there’s one in your area by searching here. )

But families don’t need to file a lawsuit or launch an advocacy group to effect meaningful change. Smaller changes add up, and every little bit makes a difference. For instance, Chizewer suggests making efforts to reduce your household’s water and energy use, which contribute to and are impacted by climate change.

As parents, we try to teach our kids how to be kind humans and engaged citizens; but sometimes we’re the ones who need to learn from our kids. While many of us are wringing our hands about the current political climate and the plethora of daily tragedies that befall the world, maybe we should take a lesson from these kids — who are rolling up their sleeves and taking care of business. Bellinger said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have spoken to the United Nations and at various rallies, been featured on major news shows, and even given presentations to groups of lawyers, students, and others.

If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is.

“Their stories and voices are being elevated and heard around the world,” Bellinger said. “It’s been amazing over the last year and a half to watch them form strong bonds and relationships and support each other in this case and other endeavors. They are some of the most amazing, inspiring, and courageous youth you’ll ever meet.”

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