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Youth Get Ahead of the Curve with Lawsuit (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

Youth Get Ahead of the Curve with Lawsuit (Rev. Tom VandeStadt)

My Generation…Our Future:
Youth Get Ahead of the Curve with Lawsuit


I know climate change is going to have the biggest impact on my generation and generations to come. Our government isn’t taking action and we have a very small window to turn this around. I feel a sense of responsibility to take action.

- Sophie Kivlehan, 17-year-old from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

As a teen, I can tell you this is our future we’re talking about. We have to stop going about our lives as if nothing is happening.

- Miko Virgun, 15-year-old from Beaverton, Oregon.



Sophie Kivlehan and Miko Virgun are two of the twenty-one young people, aged nine to twenty one, who are suing the US federal government over climate change. In Juliana vs. United States, the young plaintiffs are arguing that the federal government is violating the public trust doctrine by allowing dangerous levels of CO2 to concentrate in the atmosphere.  

The public trust doctrine is a centuries-old legal principle that states the government is responsible for protecting public resources that private interests cannot appropriate. Public trust doctrine has been part of federal case law since the Supreme Court ruled in 1892 that the State of Illinois could not grant a section of Lake Michigan shoreline to a railroad company. In more recent years, courts have used it to prohibit private landowners from blocking access to public beaches.

Mary Wood, a law professor at University of Oregon, says the doctrine should apply to the atmosphere. The atmosphere is public—it exists for everyone and everyone depends on its continued capacity to sustain life. We the people entrust our government to be the atmosphere’s steward on our behalf, which includes ensuring that no person, corporation or industry harms the atmosphere. In this, our government has more than failed us, it has betrayed us. Our government has not only allowed but actively encouraged the use of fossil fuels that emit heat-trapping CO2 into the atmosphere. This changes the earth’s climate in ways that harm us all.

Because their lives are most at stake, these young people are taking action. Supported by environmental attorney, Julia Olson, and the organization she directs, Our Children’s Trust, the young plaintiffs are suing the federal government for violating the public’s trust by not protecting the atmosphere.

The Obama Administration, arguing that the courts were not the proper venue for addressing climate change, sought to throw the case out. In a victory for the plaintiffs, US District Judge, Ann Aiken, ruled the law suit could proceed. In her opinion, Judge Aiken wrote that the case is not a debate about whether or not climate change is occurring and human activity is driving it. Those “facts are undisputed.” Rather, the plaintiffs are legitimately alleging that the government’s actions and inactions have “so profoundly damaged our home planet that they threaten plaintiff’s fundamental constitutional rights to life and liberty.” 

With the change of administration, the young people are now suing the Trump administration, and given the current administration’s hostility toward the scientific consensus on climate change and its enthusiasm for fossil fuels, the stakes are suddenly much higher. In tandem with the American Petroleum Institute, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association, and the National Manufacturers Association, the Trump administration has fought the case but not derailed it. The trial might proceed as early as this summer.

Columbia University law professor, Michael Burger, claims this case could be pivotal in resisting the Trump Administration’s denial of climate change and promotion of fossil fuels. “Whatever happens, this is a case to watch,” Burger says. “It’s out there, ahead of the curve.  And given the change in administration and President Trump’s views on climate change, this may be a potential hook to keep things moving along the climate change front. It may be the opening salvo in what will be an increasing number of lawsuits that take a rights-based approach to climate change in the United States.”

Sixteen-year-old plaintiff, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, from Boulder, Colorado, says, “We’re doing what so many people told us we were incapable of doing:  holding our leaders accountable for the disastrous and dangerous actions. I and my co-plaintiffs are demanding justice for our generation and justice for all future generations.”

Nine-year-old plaintiff, Levi Draheim, says, “The reason I care so much is that I basically grew up on the beach. It’s like another mother, sort of, to me.”  

To follow this case and to help these young people hold our leaders accountable, demand justice for future generations and protect mother earth, go to www.ourchildrenstrust.org.



Rev. Tom VandeStadt  is pastor at  Congregational Church of Austin , TX, a leading social justice advocate, and cofounder of AllCreation.org.  

Rev. Tom VandeStadt is pastor at Congregational Church of Austin, TX, a leading social justice advocate, and cofounder of AllCreation.org.  

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