WILL THE CLIMATE KIDS SAVE THE PLANET? A determined group of young people is suing the federal government to force it into taking action against global warming.

Author:Grise, Chrisanne
Position:Cover story
 
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One night in the summer of 2016, Jayden Foytlin awoke to the sound of her older sister, Grace, banging on her bedroom door, yelling that the house was flooding.

"I thought she was messing with me," says Jayden, now 15. "It wasn't until I stepped out of bed and into ankle-deep water that I realized it was for real."

It was the start of a historic flood that ravaged much of Louisiana, including Rayne, the town Jayden's family lives in. An unprecedented amount of rainfall led to heavy flooding; 13 people died, more than 30,000 others had to be rescued, and more than 109,000 homes--including Jayden's--suffered damage. Officials deemed it a 500-year flood, meaning there is a 1 in 500 chance of a flood of this magnitude occurring in any given year.

"I felt shocked and a little numb," Jayden says.

And that was only the beginning. Less than a year later, Rayne flooded again. This flood wasn't as disastrous, but it strengthened Jayden's resolve to do something about what she believes is the cause of the storms devastating her town: climate change.

Today Jayden is one of 21 young Americans, ages 11 to 22, who are suing the federal government to demand that it take action to stop global warming. The plaintiffs claim that the government's actions--and inaction--in the face of climate change violate their "fundamental constitutional rights to freedom from deprivation of life, liberty, and property."

Their age is central to their argument: For older people, the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change are a problem, but ultimately an abstract one since they may not be around to experience them. Today's children, however, will be dealing with environmental disaster within their lifetimes; the youngest of the plaintiffs, Levi Draheim, will be just 33 in 2040, the year by which a United Nations scientific panel expects some of the biggest climate-related crises to begin, including widespread coastal flooding and food shortages.

But it's still unclear if and when the plaintiffs will get their day in court. The Trump administration has repeatedly requested stays of proceedings--which halt the legal process--and no one can be sure how long the delays will last or what the outcome will be.

If the. case, Juliana v. United States, does move forward, it could be a game changer, determining whether the judicial branch should play a role in dealing with global warming, and whether U.S. citizens have a constitutional right to a safe, stable climate.

The Obama Administration

Juliana v. United States began in 2015, when environmental attorney Julia Olson and her nonprofit, Our Children's Trust, filed a federal suit in Eugene, Oregon, against the Obama administration. They'd found the 21 plaintiffs through human rights and environmental organizations.

The lawsuit they filed called for faster action from a president who was generally considered to be friendly to environmental interests. (Olson had previously filed climate-related lawsuits with youth plaintiffs in all 50 states, some of which are still pending.) Their argument was based on a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine, which can be used to compel the government to preserve natural resources for public use. The initial complaint declared that the government had "willfully ignored" the dangers of fossil fuels.

The Obama administration sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the courts are ill-suited to oversee an issue that spans the globe.

"Climate change is a very serious problem. We do not question the science," Sean Duffy, a lawyer for the Justice Department, told a federal court in September 2016. "Our position is that Congress and the executive branch should address climate change in the first instance and should do so by coordinating with other nations."

However, the plaintiffs--often referred to as the climate kids--are hoping the judicial system will force the government to write a recovery plan that drastically reduces carbon emissions and stabilizes our climate system.

"We need pressing, urgent, aggressive action," says Kelsey Juliana, 22, the plaintiff named first in the case. "We're going to go big, because we're talking about the survival of humanity."

Stays & Delays

The election of President Trump has added to the plaintiffs' concerns, as his administration is reversing Obama-era climate policies and encouraging the use of fossil fuels, which scientists say greatly contribute to warming.

"In the view of the plaintiffs, Obama was moving too slowly, and now Trump is moving backward," says Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

As with the previous White...

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