Young people taking legal action in 10 US states all say their lives and futures are irreparably affected by climate change, writes Caroline O'Doherty
In the US, Donald Trump is among the defendants listed in a climate case and he’s not one bit happy about it.
But then it probably doesn’t help that the people who listed him are children.
They range in age from 11 to 22 — they were aged eight to 19 starting out — and come from 10 states, although half are in the state of Oregon, home to the lead plaintiff, Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana.
Kelsey was 19 when she and her co-plaintiffs, with the assistance of the Our Children’s Trust campaign group, filed their case in 2015 against the president personally, the office of the president, seven government departments and their secretaries [ministers], the US Environmental Protection Agency and numerous other federal agencies.
Barack Obama was president at the time and he left the case as a legacy to his successor who has been instructing his legal representatives to block its hearing any way possible.
They’ve been to the local court in Oregon and to the Supreme Court arguing for an end to “this clearly improper attempt to have the judiciary decide important questions of energy and environmental policy to the exclusion of the elected branches of government”.
So far the courts have not agreed, although there is one ruling yet to be delivered, and Juliana v United States is scheduled for hearing beginning October 29.
The case is worded in a very personal way, drawing on the day to day lives and needs of the children and their hopes and dreams for the future.
In Kelsey’s case, it outlines how she depends on the freshwaters of Oregon for drinking water, for her seafood diet, and for recreation.
Acidification of the ocean, rising sea levels, soaring temperatures and vanishing rains are dramatically changing the environment that sustains her.
Oregon was suffering drought when she filed the case and three years on, conditions have worsened.
The national drought monitoring service says “abnormal dryness or drought” is affecting 99% of the state’s population.
Kelsey, who loves to swim, snorkel, raft and canoe, can’t enter the water much because of algal bloom. She can’t camp in summer because of wildfires.
Her love of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is affected because the winter snows are diminishing.
In addition, the complaint states: “Defendants have caused psychological and emotional harm to Kelsey as a result of her fear of a changing climate, her knowledge of the impacts that will occur in her lifetime, and her knowledge that defendants are continuing to cause harms that threaten her life and wellbeing.
Climate change has also had a profound effect on Sophie Kivlehan, 19, from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“Extreme weather events, including Hurricane Sandy caused Sophie to miss school on many occasions; hailstorms have damaged her house; floodwaters often inundate roads by her house; and Sophie has even been forced to prepare for tornado warnings, which are very unusual for the area where she lives.
“Intense summer heat now diminishes Sophie’s ability to participate in and enjoy outdoor activities, including track and tennis.
Nick Venner, 16, from Lakewood, Colorado, is witnessing the destruction of his beloved forests by wildfires and pine beetle infestation caused by the rising temperatures, and the loss of his family’s fruit growing enterprise due to hail, rainstorms and drought.
His complaint says: “As a Catholic, he is drawn to the intersection between his church and environmental stewardship, and was inspired by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, On Care For Our Common Ground.”
In fact, the Global Catholic Climate Movement, an umbrella group of Catholic organisations involved in work for climate justice, requested amicus or friend status in the case so that they could file a submission in support of the children.
The movement’s members in Ireland include Trócaire, the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, the Society of African Missions, the Sisters of St John of God and the Presentation Sisters.
Levi Draheim, 11, is from Indialantic, Florida, a narrow strip of island separated from the mainland by the Indian River, with the Atlantic lapping the other side.
Sea level studies commissioned by the neighbouring town of Satellite Beach warn the island is likely to be submerged, partially or wholly, by rising water levels and Levi faces losing his home.
In the meantime, the lagoon and beaches that form his natural playground are suffering, with dead fish, toxic bacteria and invasive seaweed a regular occurrence and the sea turtle population dwindling.
“Experiencing nature and wilderness in healthy conditions is important for Levi’s emotional wellbeing and his fears for the future of the beaches and springs in Florida and the wildlife that inhabit them are causing adverse psychological impacts to Levi,” his case states.
Similar experiences are described by the other plaintiffs who all say their lives and futures are irreparably affected by climate change, but their case doesn’t rely on human stories alone.
They argue that the federal government has known for decades that carbon pollution caused catastrophic climate change and that a massive reduction in emissions and a move away from fossil fuel was needed but, despite this, the extraction, production, consumption, transportation and export of fossil fuels was allowed to continue.
For scientific understanding of the impact of carbon concentration in the atmosphere, they can go back to the 1800s.
For warnings to the government, they go back to the 1950s. For international alarm, they can reference the 1980s.
By way of remedy, they want the court to declare that, by their actions, the defendants are dangerously interfering with a stable climate system and violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property as a result.
They also want the court to order the defendants to carry out a more accurate inventory of carbon emissions and to prepare and implement a national remedial plan that will phase out fossil fuel emissions and, most ambitiously, draw down the excess carbon already in the atmosphere.