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Using kids to file environmental lawsuits: Fair or exploitative?

By   /   August 19, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo collage of federal youth plaintiffs from Our Children's Trust website

KIDS AS PLAINTIFFS: In what has become an increasingly used tactic, environmental organizations are using teens and children as litigants in lawsuits aimed at slashing the use of fossil fuels.

In their battle against fossil fuels, environmental organizations have long used the courts to achieve what they can’t win in the marketplace.

But in an increasing number of recent lawsuits, those organizations are employing a new twist: Using kids as plaintiffs.

Eugene, Ore.-based Our Children’s Trust has been one of the driving forces behind a series of lawsuits in various states with children acting as plaintiffs, some as young as 8 years old.

“We wanted to support young people in engaging in democracy because many of them can’t vote,” said Julia Olson, the organization’s executive director, an attorney and mother of two. “One principal way for them to take action with their government is to bring cases in court and to petition rule-making bodies like agencies at the state level to enact rules to limit carbon emissions.”

But while the strategy has been greeted with cheers in the green movement, the use of what Olson calls “youth plaintiffs” has generated criticism in other quarters.

“This step towards having kids (file lawsuits) is just a way to make it more emotional and more political and less challenging to where the science is,” said Jim Steele, an ecologist and self-described climate skeptic who spent 25 years as the director of the San Francisco State University Sierra Nevada Field Campus, considered one of California’s leading environmental education centers.

“To me, you’re not trying to prove the science one way or the other,” Steele said. “You’re trying to push a political agenda and get people to be liable to what I think is fear-mongering.”

And the instances of children as lead plaintiffs is growing.

Just last week, a group of 21 kids — 11 from Oregon and 10 from other states — filed a lawsuit against President Obama and the federal government, saying the nation’s political leaders “have violated and are violating Plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by causing dangerous CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and dangerous government interference with a stable climate system.”

The suit claims the government is not doing enough to prevent climate change and the plaintiffs want elected officials to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the plaintiffs is the granddaughter of James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and an outspoken environmental advocate who in 2009 said, “Climate change is analogous to Lincoln and slavery or Churchill and Nazism: it’s not the kind of thing where you can compromise.”

Hansen wrote a 32-page legal declaration in favor of the lawsuit.

Olson told Watchdog.org that Our Children’s Trust does not recruit children to take part in the lawsuits.

“These youth plaintiffs come to us and are empowered and excited to participate in their constitutional democracy,” Olson said in a telephone interview.

Until very recently, the track record for litigation backed by children and teens was spotty.

*In 2012, a suit filed by five teenagers against the federal government, including the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was dismissed.

*Ashley Funk, who was 17 at the time, sued Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board to reduce carbon emissions. Last year, her petition to the board was rejected. Funk worked with Our Children’s Trust on the petition and her story is featured on the website “I Matter, Kids vs Global Warming,” a project of Earth Island Institute, an environmental organization based in Berkeley, California.

*A statewide lawsuit filed in New Mexico with the support of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians in the case of Akiah Sanders-Reed, who was 16 at the time, against state officials was dismissed earlier this year. Our Children’s Trust took heart in noting the court acknowledged the state had a public trust responsibility to protect the atmosphere.

*In Oregon, two teens have lost twice in court, calling on a county judge to order the state Legislature to do more to combat climate change. But Lane County Circuit Court Judge Karsten Rasmussen ruled in July that the teens “are really asking a solitary judge in one of 36 counties to completely subvert the legislative process.” The two teenagers are appealing the case.

Our Children’s Trust won what could be a big victory earlier this summer when a King County, Washington, judge responded to a suit brought by a group of young people by ruling the state’s Department of Ecology had to consider reductions in statewide carbon dioxide emissions.

“I’m not going to sit by and watch my government do nothing,” said 13-year-old plaintiff Zoe Foster. “We don’t have time to waste.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Washington, met with the youth petitioners and on July 28 announced he was directing the state Department of Ecology to “step up enforcement of existing state pollution laws and develop a regulatory cap on carbon emissions.”

From Our Children's Trust Facebook page

From Our Children’s Trust Facebook page

In short, it’s hard for politicians, state officials and some judges to say no to children.

“It’s creating this weird political wedge that doesn’t deal with the science at all,” Steele said. “Even if you lose the case, you’re tugging on people’s heartstrings.”

“It should be hard to say no to these kids because they’re fighting for their lives,” Olson said. “And I think it should be hard for every adult in this nation to say no to these kids when all they’re asking for is climate stability.”

Related: Environmentalists in Vermont fight over renewable mandates

But will fossil fuel interests simply turn the tables? It’s not hard to imagine — especially in red states — lawsuits employing children to protest environmental policies that may shutter oil, gas and coal facilities employing their parents and producing the energy that fuels their communities.

“There’s no fundamental right to have a secure job in a particular industry that is destroying our nation’s climate system,” Olson said. “We’re talking about apples and oranges there … The courts have said the government can’t actively do things that are causing you harm and putting you in a dangerous position … There’s an obligation for them to provide for our safety.”

Steele said he taught high school and middle school courses during his time at San Francisco State.

“Most of these kids just don’t have the experiential background to really argue this in any kind of way,” Steele said. “To push them as some kind of real experts on this issue or (as if) they should be listened to carefully is political drama more than anything. These kids know what’s being spoon-fed to them. And if you look at the (global warming) hiatus from the last 18 years, none of these kids have experienced global warming. They have all these fears that different people will push to them.”

“All you have to do is meet one of these kids to know this is not something being forced upon them by adults,” Olson said. “This is truly something they feel is their only chance, really, to protect their climate system for their future and for future generations.”

In the meantime, Olson says that coming on the heels of her organization’s win in Washington state, more kid-driven lawsuits are coming.

“It’s already had a ripple effect,” Olson said, adding that Our Children’s Trust plans on filing a similar lawsuit in Pennsylvania “in the next couple of weeks” and anticipates other legal action in Florida, Hawaii, New York, Arizona, Alaska and Montana.

“What you’re trying to push is, here are these children trying to protect their futures from this oncoming catastrophe,” said Steele, author of the 2013 book “Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism.”

“All the data that I’ve looked at regarding how wildlife has responded to climate change shows that this push of recent climate change will be catastrophic is bunk,” Steele said. “It also gets offensive in a way because it says these children care about our future but if you’re a skeptic you really don’t care about children or the future.”

“I think history is on our side,” Olson said. “I don’t think time is on our side because we’re reaching tipping points in the climate system. And the scientists say if we don’t significantly reduce carbon pollution in the next few years we may not be able to stop the runaway warming and the melting of the ice sheets and the kind of sea level rise that they’re projecting in the coming decades.”

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Rob formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.