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At first glance, these teens seem pretty average. They want to spend spring break on the beach. They like sports, reading fiction novels, and hanging out in coffee shops. But talk to any one of them and you’ll quickly realize they’re more than “just kids.”
All 21 of them—barely even in college—are plaintiffs in a federal constitutional climate lawsuit against the United States government.
Initially filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in 2015, the lawsuit, Juliana vs. U.S, makes the claim that “through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.”
The plaintiffs, ages 10 to 22, come from all over the country, from New York and Florida to Washington state. Backed by eco-advocacy group, Our Children’s Trust, these youth have spent the last three years in and out of courts, waiting through motions to dismiss and appeals. They’ve rallied, marched, given Ted Talks, and spoken with the press. They've become family. And through both unyielding support and criticisms, they’ve shown no signs of backing down. In fact, they're just getting started.
“We’ve become a symbol of what it means for young people to take action against the government,” 18-year-old Victoria Barrett tells us. The New York native, currently studying political and environmental sciences at the University of Wisconsin, first became involved in youth and climate change activism her freshman year of high school. “At the time, I didn’t know much about what climate change had to do with human rights. But once I started working with the Alliance for Climate Education, I started to learn about environmental justice, like why some countries are more disproportionately affected by climate change.”
Since then, Barrett has spoken at both the United Nations headquarters and its COP21 conference in Paris. “I think people are finally ready to listen to young people. It’s finally clicking that everything happening in society today is building and formulating what will one day be handed to us.”
For many of the youth, the term “climate change” became a familiar one at an early age. Levi Draheim, the youngest of the plaintiffs, grew up within walking distance to Florida’s beaches where he visits often with his mom. “I first heard about climate change when I was 7 years old,” he tells us. “I remember my parents talking about this kind of stuff and it was scary. I realized that nature might not be around if climate change continued.”
Nineteen-year-old Sophie Kivlehan isn’t new to the idea either, especially growing up with her grandfather and well-known climate change awareness advocate, Dr. James Hansen. “Before the lawsuit, I had already known a lot about climate change from a science side, but not much about the legal side,” says the Pennsylvania teen. She was just preparing to tackle her SATs when she first got involved in the lawsuit. “At first, it was confusing, really. I thought...How could you sue for something in the future? Something that hasn’t happened yet?”
And while she's learned more about the legal system in the past few years than most kids will in their high school careers, learning how to be an activist has been a different kind of experience for Kivlehan.
“Becoming an activist was awkward for me at first and definitely not in my comfort zone,” says the college science lover, currently double majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology. “I like to sit in the lab and do my equations. I like being behind the scenes. But for some of these other kids, they're already so out there. And it’s so, so cool. Like Kelsey? She’s so good at pumping up a crowd!"
As both the oldest and the lead plaintiff, Kelsey Juliana (who just turned 22 last month) has been a climate activist for as long as she could remember. "My parents always cared about the environment and we spent a lot of time outdoors growing up," says the Oregon native. "I remember when I was five and my little brother was two and we would dress up as animals and go to the farmer’s market and chant, ‘Save the Planet! Save the Planet!’”
In high school, Juliana walked from Nebraska to D.C for the Great March for Climate Action (“We had to walk the talk!) and has since organized marches, mobilized other youth, and travelled as far as the Philippines to speak. She’s studying both environmental science and education in hopes of being a public school teacher.
At the same time, like many of the other plaintiffs, Juliana's daily commitments don't end in the classroom or even the courtroom. These young people are also still juggling extracurriculars, multiple after school jobs, and the usual friendship, relationship, and roommate ordeals that come with growing pains. So how do they avoid burning out?
“Our activism has to come from a place of joy and passion. I see a lot of other young people burn out because there’s this pressure to be perfect at everything. But there is no concrete answer to activism or the climate crisis," says Juliana. "I always tell other young people to do what you have access to, whether it's through writing or rallying. Find out what cause you care about the most. Your solution has to reflect you.”
For 17-year-old Aji Piper, who calls Washington state home, that solution was music. As a member of youth eco-advocacy organizations Earth Guardians RYSE and Plant for the Planet, Piper remembers when he was first asked to speak as a climate justice ambassador during a state protest against oil trains. “I didn’t think I could write a good speech. My mom told me, 'You have a uke, and you can sing. Try writing a song.' So I started using music to channel my activism."
This isn't Piper's first experience as a plaintiff either. Like several of the other youth, he first filed complaints in his home state before joining the federal case. And even the second time around, Piper says he’s still learning about how to be a stronger activist every day. “Everyone wants to believe that someone else will do something about it. There’s a diffused responsibility going on. And I think I’m just starting to approach that threshold where you break from the novice level of being a speaker, and are ready to take on things of larger scale.”
As Piper and the rest of the plaintiffs currently await their new trial date this fall, they continue to remain hopeful. “They’re not only fighting for their rights, but also looking out for future generations, their own children,” says lead attorney and mother of two, Julia Olson. “Honestly, young people have been some of my best clients. They’re so articulate and such incredible advocates. Many can’t vote or drive yet. They don’t have the money to lobby. But they’re still marching in the streets. And they're still raising their voices.” To learn more about how you can help, visit youthvgov.org.
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