On Tuesday morning I found myself skipping my actual job and trudging up the steps of the courthouse in a deluge of rain. I was there to witness 21 youth take on the federal government in a court case that seeks to win major action to reverse climate change.
It’s all happening in Eugene, Oregon, about five minutes from my doorstep where last year, Judge Coffin upheld the plaintiff’s initial case against the US government.
So what exactly are these 21 kids upset about?
Just the future of humanity on planet Earth, specifically whether basic human rights such as clean air, water, and a stable climate can actually be considered basic human rights.
In attempt to follow through with my established theme for 2017–“show up”–I attended a press conference where the 21 plaintiffs, aged 9-20 years, were joined by climate scientist, James Hansen and their attorneys.
The plaintiffs claim that the government is denying their constitutional rights by failing to act on climate change, thereby putting their future at risk.
Oregon Judge Thomas M. Coffin also named the fossil fuel industry (specifically, three trade associations making up nearly all of the country’s oil and natural gas companies) as another defendant alongside the federal government, when they moved to intervene into the case. The fossil fuel industry originally filed for intervenor status after claiming that the lawsuit was a “direct threat to [their] business.”
The conference meeting I attended sought to set deadlines, clarify the case, and make sure all parties were aware of what needed to be done to move forward.
By 10 A.M. I was packed into a somewhat small courtroom with around 80 other Oregonians who showed up to support the trial’s young plaintiffs. As everyone rustled around, shoving wet rain jackets under the courtroom benches, we quickly realized that we wouldn’t have enough seats for everyone. One of the courtroom attendants happily made the decision to move us to a larger courtroom to accommodate the overflow of people.
Sitting in a courtroom with the federal government, the fossil fuel industry, and a grassroots non-profit organization proved to be fraught with tension.
A handful of the 21 plaintiffs sat together in the courtroom. Before the meeting officially began, they chattered to each other excitedly, but during the hour and a half meeting, they were all completely silent. Some of the younger kids twiddled their thumbs and looked at the clock; I imagine being a nine year old in a courtroom with the federal government quickly loses its magic. The two older plaintiffs–a slender young man with thick, long hair tucked into a ponytail, and a dark-haired girl with a nose piercing that perfectly represents the Eugene aesthetic–seemed to follow along quite well with the case, exchanging glances depending on what was discussed.
Perhaps it was just the formality of this particular meeting, but it seemed to me the youth taking on the government stand for much more than teens in court. They seem to be symbols of everything this upcoming generation holds dearly. Will their diverse, hopeful faces show up in American history textbooks in 50 years, symbolizing dissent and due process?
I’m unsure of what their actual role in the official trial will be, whether they will be questioned or not. What I do know is that they serve as the figureheads for the press. “Meet the 11 Year-Old Taking On The Trump Administration” certainly makes for an engaging headline.
It’s also easy to gain public support when children seek to sue for their futures. They’re backed by the non-profit, Our Children’s Trust, where you can read all the court documents as they are made available. Having a wide range of youth act as the representatives for the case and for our planet immediately forces people to ask, “What will the lives of these kids look like in 10 years?” Or how about 30? 50?
“Time is the enemy of our plaintiffs,” said Julia Olsen, Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust and lead counsel to the plaintiffs. Her statement engages the public and puts pressure on the court to move quickly.
Though the case itself is still in its infancy, the plaintiffs’ position is clear.
They want to prove climate change is real, that it is human caused, AND that the government has known the damages of climate change for decades and still chose to promote harmful industries. If they are able to prove this, they want the government to take responsibility and remedy to the extent that climate change can be remedied. Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit organization representing the plaintiffs, says that the remedy they seek will be stronger and more progressive than goals reached at the Paris talks last year.
The government’s stance in the case is less clear. The government admits to some of the plaintiffs’ stances on climate change. This includes the amount of carbon dioxide currently in our atmosphere and the fact that humans play a role in climate change. I suppose that, if they make these admissions, the only allegation they contest is the government causation aspect of the case. I speculate the US government will deny that they have knowingly caused harm, and they will seek to prove that.
At one point during the conference, the defendant’s attorneys spoke about needing time to determine who their scientific experts will be, to which Judge Coffin responded with something along the lines of, ‘So if you don’t contest the claims, what will the experts rebut?’ It was a good question; Coffin was extremely composed and fair to all parties, but this blatant question did merit a laugh from those of us on the benches.
The government seems hesitant to agree to deadlines which will help the trial to progress quickly. The idea of compiling their experts, getting the climate documents requested by the plaintiffs, and getting a case ready by the fall, was called “unfathomable” “unimaginable” and “impossible” by government representatives due to the amount of logistics. Judge Coffin openly said he didn’t like to hear that type of language in the court, and that all parties would need to work on simplifying the case to avoid those terms.
Not surprisingly, the intervenors–fossil fuel industry representatives–currently are unsure whether the current levels of carbon dioxide are what the plaintiffs AND the government claim them to be. Likewise, the intervenors claim they do not know if climate change is caused by humans.
So…what DO they know? What DO they contest?
In the end, Coffin made it clear that scientific experts will be the basis of the first phase of the trial, and that he will allow science into his courtroom to speak for itself. He encouraged all parties to work together to streamline the proceedings, and encouraged the plaintiffs to simplify and narrow the focus.
The plaintiffs scheduled a target deadline for choosing their scientific experts.
While this court case will undoubtedly prove to be engaging and even potentially history-making, it also serves as a reminder that if young kids can show up and take on the federal government, the act of showing up–in life, in court–may be the very thing we need to do a lot more.