These Kids Are Suing President Obama Over What?

by Lauren Barbato

There are some new kids on the block saying, "Thanks, Obama!" and no, they aren't recent college grads with no jobs and mounting student debt. A group of kids are suing the federal government over climate change, arguing in a lawsuit filed in a federal court on Wednesday that the Obama administration's federal fossil fuel policies have violated their constitutional rights. The 21 plaintiffs, who range in age from eight to 19 years, allege that the federal government has essentially screwed over future generations, depriving them of their "rights to life, liberty, and property." And they're mad as hell about it.

"Defendants [the federal government] have acted with deliberate indifference to the peril they knowingly created," the 21 youths allege in the court filing. "Defendants’ acts also discriminate against these young citizens, who will disproportionately experience the destabilized climate system in our country." The Obama administration has yet to comment on the lawsuit. President Obama himself is named as one of the plaintiffs, along with Secretary of State John Kerry.

The young plaintiffs are backed by Our Children's Trust, a youth-driven environmental nonprofit based in Eugene, Oregon. They say that they are "especially vulnerable" to the harmful effects of climate change. There is "an extremely limited amount of time to preserve a habitable climate system," the plaintiffs allege, noting that the nation is currently in its "carbon overshoot" period.

What does that mean, exactly? The group of youths specifically target the Energy Policy Act, and claim that if the federal government doesn't enact policies that greatly reduce fossil fuel emissions, environmental conditions will soon "rise to unbearable." The young plaintiffs want the Obama administration to come up with a plan to stabilize our nation's climate system and "phase-down CO2 emissions" by year 2100 — by which time we will likely be long gone, but future generations will be enduring the consequences of our mistakes.

The plaintiffs hail from all over the United States, and each of them bring a unique set of experiences and responses to climate change. Among them are 19-year-old Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana, who walked 1,600 miles from Nebraska to Washington, D.C. in 2014 to raise awareness about the ongoing climate crisis. Juliana alleges in her complaint that the federal government has caused her "psychological and emotional harm" because of "her fear of a changing climate."


There's also 15-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Tonatiuh M. of Boulder, Colorado, who served on the Presidential Youth Council to advise Obama and has addressed the United Nations. He says climate change harms his "personal safety, property, and recreational interests," as well as the spiritual and religious practices of his Aztec heritage.

Meanwhile, 18-year-olds Alexander Loznak and Jacob Lebel say that climate change, specifically the devastating drought on the West Coast, has negatively impacted their families' farms, which have long been a source of food and commerce. And 14-year-old Jaime B., a member of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, says that her family had to move because of the water scarcity. She claims that the springs which members of her reservation once depended on are now all dried up.

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The 21 action-oriented kids were joined in the lawsuit by climate change scientist James Hansen, who filed a supportive, separate declaration. Hansen is the grandfather of one of the plaintiffs, 17-year-old Sophie Kivlehan.

"In my opinion, this lawsuit is made necessary by the at-best schizophrenic, if not suicidal, nature of U.S. climate and energy policy," Hansen wrote in his filing. "The federal government continues to permit and otherwise support industry’s efforts to exploit fully our reserves of gas, coal, and oil, even in the face of increasing overwhelming evidence that our continued fossil fuel dependency ... constitutes one of the greatest threats to our nation, human civilization and nature alike." Hansen acknowledged that the federal government has recognized the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which vows to "protect the climate system for present and future generations." However, the nation's leading climate change scientists believe that the U.S. government has fallen short in its policies.

The future generations' "fundamental rights now hang in the balance," Hansen wrote.