Nelson Kanuk, Kelsey Juliana, and John Thiebes. Credit: Sam Beebe/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Scientific American spoke with Kelsey Juliana, one of the 21 kids who are suing the U.S. government over climate change
By Jennifer Hackett on April 15, 2016
A group of 21 climate-conscious kids is suing the U.S. government over global warming, accusing the defendants of endangering the young plaintiffs’ lives, liberty and property via the extensive use of fossil fuels. They are backed by the environmental advocacy group Our Children’s Trust, which has supported similar lawsuits in other states, but this is the first time such an action has come this far, after a federal judge ruled that they have constitutional grounds to press their case.
The government and three fossil fuel industry trade associations had filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the U.S. has no duty to protect natural resources at the federal level and that the public trust doctrine—a foundational principle of many environmental and natural resource laws—only applies on the state level. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon ruled on April 8 that the government is subject to the doctrine, and that as trustee of the nation’s resources it must protect them.
Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen, a prominent researcher-turned-activist whose 1988 congressional testimony on climate change helped bring the issue into the national spotlight, is the only plaintiff on the case over 19 years of age. Hanson, who is 75, first became involved with Our Children’s Trust in 2010, when the organization asked him to help file a case against the government by contributing the scientific basis for the lawsuit. That case made it to district court level in the District of Columbia but was ultimately dismissed for not making the constitutional basis for the case clear enough. “This time we have got it right, and I am confident that we will win,” Hansen says.
Kelsey Juliana—at 19 the oldest of the “youth plaintiffs,” as they describe themselves—has already spent much of her life in environmental activism.* She has participated in the Great March for Climate Action as well as the 2014 People’s Climate March held in New York City and has been a longtime advocate for climate change awareness in Oregon. Now a student at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., she is majoring in environmental studies, focusing on environmental education and policy while continuing her work with Our Children’s Trust and other environmental activism groups.