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Do Americans Have a Constitutional Right to a Livable Planet? Meet the 21 Young People Who Say They Do

Do Americans Have a Constitutional Right to a Livable Planet? Meet the 21 Young People Who Say They Do 1

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Vic Barrett, a nineteen-year-old climate activist from New York, has three tattoos on his arm. One depicts a daisy and a lily; another a rose and a skull, captioned aut vincere aut mori—Latin for “to conquer or to die.” The third is the number 370.

“It’s the amount of parts per million of carbon that were in the atmosphere the year I was born,” Barrett explains. Today we’re past 400, and many scientists agree we’re in the danger zone until we drop to 350, a goal that requires a radical worldwide curbing of greenhouse gas emissions. The ink is a reminder: “There’ve been whole generations of kids born into a world that can’t sustain them.”

Barrett is doing his part to change that. He’s one of 21 young plaintiffs—ranging from eleven to 23 years old—who are suing the Trump administration for contributing to climate change. (The case, officially Juliana v. United States, goes by the nickname Youth v. Gov.) Their argument is rooted in the constitution: It’s tough to enjoy life, liberty, and property on an increasingly inhospitable planet, and their generation will suffer the most.

In October, a United Nations report raised the stakes sky high: If our global emissions continue at the current rate, it will lead to climate catastrophe, with a window of just over a decade to reverse course. “These [reports] have been getting progressively more dire,” says Barrett’s coplaintiff, nineteen-year-old Nathan Baring. “This one set out a very specific timeline and in a very forceful way.”

Since that dread diagnosis, there have been school strikes across Europe and, in the U.S., government sit-ins organized by the youth-led Sunrise Movement. But the urgency of the U.N. forecast was best summed up by a sixteen-year-old Swede named Greta Thunberg, who came to Davos with a warning to the global bazillionaire class: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”

The Juliana plaintiffs have been collectively panicking since 2015, when they first filed suit with lawyers Philip Gregory and Julia Olson, and the latter’s Eugene, Oregon, nonprofit, Our Children’s Trust. The attorneys found eligible plaintiffs through their involvement with youth environmental organizations. Even so, the lawsuit was daunting to some parents. “I was like, You’re what?” remembers Baring’s mother, Sharon. “You don’t just sue the federal government without consequences.” She came around when she realized that Olson and company “weren’t trying to put words into the kids’ mouths; they were trying to be a megaphone for their deep sense of violation and concern.”

Environmental litigation, historically, has been piecemeal. “Somebody wants to build a power plant,” Gregory says, “you try to shut it down.” The Juliana lawyers are attempting something far more sweeping, aiming to persuade the courts to impel the executive and legislative branches to do what has thus far been politically untenable: implement a set of policies that will transition the United States off fossil fuels—and fast. “An intricate legal strategy that took us there in incremental steps would have been a good idea 30 years ago,” says activist and author Bill McKibben. “Now, probably not so much. What’s important about this case is that it says we need to act now.”

Of course, the courts aren’t exactly known for being fleet of foot. These kids first filed suit against the Obama administration, which, despite enacting environmental regulations, also oversaw a fracking boom. Obama’s Department of Justice tried to get the case dismissed. Trump’s DOJ has tried even harder. Last year, a temporary Supreme Court stay dashed hopes of a long-planned October trial in the Oregon district court. And now the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has agreed to hear an early appeal from the government challenging, among other things, the plaintiffs’ legal standing to sue. Oral arguments are slated for June and will determine whether the case moves to trial. (Tellingly, despite the President’s Twitter posturing, DOJ lawyers have not disputed the science undergirding the plaintiffs’ claim. Says Gregory: “Fake news in the courtroom is perjury.”)

As the Juliana case lurches through the legal system, it has acquired a sort of David and Goliath status—and won support from high-profile Democrats, including Oregon senator Jeff Merkley, currently eyeing a presidential run. He doesn’t think any candidate, at least no Democrat, can compete in 2020 without a clear climate plan: “It was a profound disappointment that it wasn’t talked about more in 2016.” And though he’s ruled out a run, Tom Steyer, the campaign mega-donor, stands squarely behind the case: “When the emperor has no clothes,” he says, “it’s the young person who tells the truth to the naked emperor.” (For the record, Steyer isn’t bankrolling the Juliana kids: The suit gets roughly two-thirds of its cash funding from grassroots donors and a third from organizations like the Wallace Global Fund and the Libra Foundation.)

The legal community has qualms. One lawyer I spoke with fretted about undermining the separation of powers; another called the constitutional strategy “innovative”—meaning who knows how it will play in court. But thus far, Juliana has proved remarkably durable, the little case that could. “If I were a betting person, I would bet the Ninth Circuit will not find in favor of the kids,” says UCLA School of Law professor Ann E. Carlson. Still, “virtually every law professor who follows this, except those involved in the case, thought this was going to get kicked out of court right away. That didn’t happen.” In fact, says Michael Gerrard, who directs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, the suit represents “the first time a [U.S.] court has held that there might be a constitutional right to a clean environment.”

That right seems obvious to the plaintiffs. Isaac Vergun is a quiet sixteen-year-old who devoted his bar mitzvah project to a fossil-fuel divestment campaign in his hometown of Beaverton, Oregon. Wildfires are making his asthma worse. Last fall, when the state of California went up in flames, he was surprised more Hollywood celebrities didn’t speak up about climate change. He frames the problem in teenager terms. “We like to procrastinate, but we still have to get things done before the deadline,” he says. “I’m hopeful that very soon everything is going to start clicking in everyone’s minds.”

Staying optimistic is a struggle. “I think we need a big fat cry,” says Isaac’s sister, Miko Vergun, seventeen, who was adopted from the Marshall Islands, the low-­lying Pacific archipelago that may soon succumb to rising seas. She and her coplaintiffs are lounging on a massive sofa in an Airbnb in Manhattan, where they’ve descended for five days of meetings and group bonding (including a field trip to Hamilton). Miko is grinning as she says it, her braces gleaming—but she’s serious. Many of the plaintiffs organized their lives around the October trial, took off school, quit jobs, and now they’re left hanging. All are grappling with the reality that this case, already three and a half years old, is nowhere near resolved.

“I mean, it’s like seven years until we’re all adults,” points out Hazel Van Ummersen, a soft-spoken fourteen-year-old in a Carhartt hat.

Alex Loznak, 22, a senior at Columbia University, is dressed business casual for an internship interview. “We started out with the hashtag #kidsvgov,” he says. “Then we changed it to #youthvgov. If the appeals keep going it’s going to have to be just #adultsvgov.”

“#peoplevgov,” someone suggests.

“Our adults’ trust!”

“When do you think they’re going to start studying us in law school?” asks Aji Piper, an eighteen-year-old who dropped out of high school to focus on the suit and related speaking opportunities (he’s seeking a more “flexible” program that lets him take his schoolwork on the go.)

“They already are!” Loznak exclaims. “I’ve taken classes studying this case. Which is a surreal experience.”

Kelsey Juliana, 23, a University of Oregon undergraduate who lent her name to the court filings, raises a different point. She chokes up describing the pressure of being, as she puts it, “a holder of hope.”

“I have professors pleading with me: ‘Can you please skip your class to come to my class and educate 200 people that are your age about why they should be hopeful?’ I feel like I have to be an emotional and spiritual compass. They don’t want to take the time to understand what’s going on. [They’re like]: ‘Just tell me how to be happy!’ ”

It’s snowing and the youngest plaintiff, Levi Draheim, eleven, who lives on an imperiled barrier island off the coast of Florida, is doing his best to contain his desire to run around outside. “You guys need snacks,” concludes their lawyer, Olson, and vegan Mexican takeout soon appears. Several girls, whose luggage Delta lost, head to Forever 21. Van Ummersen starts watching a pottery video on her phone. Another plaintiff, Nick Venner, seventeen, dons headphones and begins solving differential equations on his laptop. A snowball and then a paper airplane go zooming by, care of Draheim, who disappears upstairs and returns wearing a psychedelic wizard robe sewn by his mother.

Several of the plaintiffs describe the group as family. “Birds of a feather flock together,” is how Piper puts it. “Some of my best friends in the world,” says Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, eighteen, a hip-hop artist—his new track features Jaden Smith—of Aztec descent.

They’re doing this lawsuit for the planet, but also, one senses, for one another. “At first [the government lawyers] laughed in our faces and said, ‘Oh, this case makes no sense; you’re going to be thrown out real quick,’ ” says Jayden Foytlin, fifteen, a hard-talking Louisianan. “And now they’re acting scared, doing all they can to make sure we don’t [get to trial].” Her voice softens. “I’m tired of waiting,” she admits. “I just want to see the smiles on all my fellow plaintiffs’ faces when we’re in court.”

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