By Dr. Elizabeth Blum, author of Love Canal Revisited; Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism
On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accords signed the previous year under President Barack Obama. Noting that “I can put no other consideration before the wellbeing of American citizens,” Trump justified his decision by stating that the accord “is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States, to the exclusive benefit of other countries, leaving American workers, who I love, and taxpayers to absorb the costs in terms of lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic problems.”
The president’s decision came during a decade when polls revealed that many people, and young people in particular, emphasized climate change as a significant global problem. An Ipsos poll in 2015 noted that knowledge of the terms “global warming” and “climate change” were near universal among American eighth graders, who not only believed it to be a real phenomenon, but pointed fingers at using gasoline, cutting down trees, and creating electricity as major causes. The eighth graders also believed that adults and previous generations saddled them with a problem for their future. According to another poll taken four years earlier, the Nature Conservancy reported that “American youth are unhappy with the condition of the environment, and lack faith in adults to address it … A majority of American youth (51%) rate ‘the condition of the environment and nature’ as an ‘extremely serious’ or ‘very serious’ problem.”
Seemingly paradoxically, at the same time adults note young people’s awareness of environmental issues, they also gnash teeth and decry children’s overreliance on technology and lack of interest in the outdoors. Concerned about youth “spending more time in front of screens than outside,” President Obama launched the Every Kid in a Park program, which granted every American fourth grader and their family free admission to all federal land. The National Park Service later announced the continuation of the program in subsequent years. Richard Louv’s bestselling Last Child in the Woods blamed computers and video games on children spending less time outdoors. “Nature-deficit disorder,” as he described it, led to attention deficit disorder, along with other problems. Adults consistently blame modern technology as an impediment to young people “connecting” with nature.
A group of twenty-one young people, ranging in ages from 10-20, defied these prescriptive, stereotypical connections of modern technology with nature. With the help of committed lawyers and scientists, they filed a pathbreaking lawsuit in 2015. Styled Juliana vs. Trump, the case alleges that that the federal government violated the constitutional rights of young people in contributing to, and failing to act sufficiently against, climate change. The plaintiffs, referred to as the “Climate 21,” demand that the court tell Congress and the President to devise and implement plans to alleviate the root causes of climate change.
Julia Olson, the main lawyer in the case, brought the children together as plaintiffs. Only a couple of months prior to the birth of her second son, Julia Olson sat through the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which followed Al Gore giving his pathbreaking climate change talks. She remembers crying through most of the film, despite the fact that climate science was quite familiar to her as an environmental attorney. She felt overwhelmed by Gore’s message in the film, faced with the “added responsibility of ‘I’m bringing them [her children] into the world and I’m also leaving them with this planet that may not be safe for them.’” Faced with the film’s visceral message, Olson decided to act not only on behalf of her own children, but also for children globally and future generations.
Olson founded an organization called Our Children’s Trust, and began working toward a climate case, buoyed by a successful example of legal activism in the Philippines.  She specifically planned for children to be front and center, insisting that each plaintiff join the case of their own accord. Olson supported a view of legal activism as a path for children’s agency in the face of such an overwhelming problem as climate change. She noted that she teaches her children small measures, like refusing “plastic straws and toys with unnecessary packaging,” but realized that these typical adult prescriptions to environmental change simply lack effectiveness. “They’re going to need tools of how to live in [their] community and depend on people … and find ways to deal with the catastrophes that will come,” she notes. Finding an empowered voice, as well as their place within a democratic republic reinforces that idea.
In most categories but geographic location, the young people Olson picked represent diverse characteristics. Eleven of the Climate 21 are from Oregon, and one hails from Washington state, making the Pacific Northwest overrepresented. Other areas have representation, though, with two plaintiffs from Colorado, and one each from Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and New York. The youngest plaintiff, Levi Draheim, is now 10, and was 8 when the lawsuit started; seven of the plaintiffs are now old enough to vote, and seven others are within two years at most of doing so. Gender and ethnicity show the greatest balance. The plaintiffs divide into 11 males, and 10 females. Almost half have non-white heritage, including African Americans, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Overall, the case seeks most notably to demonstrate a broad array of inclusion, something for which the environmental movement has frequently been criticized.
The Climate 21 entered into the litigation for different reasons. Many of the plaintiffs come to their activism directly from their experiences in nature. Twenty-year-old Tia Hatton expressed a deep connection to the area near her home. She notes that “The sagebrush-filled desert skirts around [her home of Bend, Oregon], leading into National Forests, ancient rock formations, and vibrant rivers. This was my home growing up. The diverse landscapes of Bend became part of me … from a young age, I sought to protect this part of me.” Her enjoyment of Nordic skiing awoke her to the dangers of climate change, as she noticed snow levels regularly dropping. Levi Draheim, a 10-year-old boy from Indiatlantic, Florida, enjoyed going to the beaches regularly near his home. He watched and learned about progressive change in his area. He noted that “if the sea rises, our [home] could just be underwater. And our reefs … They’re just almost gone. I can’t even go to the beach [anymore]. It gives me nightmares.” Deeply connected to the nature around their homes, Hatton and Draheim root their activism in dismay over real and future changes to places they love.
Jamie Lynn Butler of Arizona, and Jacob Lebel and Alex Loznak, both from Oregon, come from farming families. They each note that ever-increasing droughts and heat waves dramatically affected their families’ abilities to make a living.  Loznak noted that “during those heat waves, many of our trees died … We had plantations of timber trees that died. Some of our hazelnut trees died or needed intensive watering as a result.” Butler remembers her family forced into selling off livestock when droughts made watering them prohibitive. Contrary to Louv’s image of modern children as so unhealthily immersed with their technology, these young people demonstrate deep connections to nature that have informed and strengthened their beliefs in climate change. Rather than retreat into the world of video games, the Climate 21 chose to develop a political voice in the face of disenfranchisement.
In addition to a strong sense of place, many of the group also have deep interests in other environmental issues. Some pursue this through education. Hatton is an environmental and international studies major at the University of Oregon. Senior Alex Loznak is a Sustainable Development major at Columbia University. Others have prior (and continuing) experience with activism. Jacob Lebel, a Canadian by birth who now lives in Eugene, Oregon, responded quickly to a threat by a Canadian company to build a natural gas pipeline close to his family’s farm. His activism helped to stop the plans for the pipeline. Expanding his geographical concern, he also protested at Standing Rock over the planned pipeline there. Miko and Isaac Vergun participate in Plant for the Planet, a growing network of groups of children who help plant trees as a response to climate change. In 2014, Avery McRae (now 12), won a local award for raising more than $300 through a “fundraising party with games, crafts, and an introduction about the important role of salmon in the ecosystem.” She noted that her inspiration for the project came from “walking along Whitaker Creek … where she saw salmon spawning.” Again, McRae demonstrates that her activism flowed from personal interactions with nature.
Families and culture provide an important entry point for activism for many of the young plaintiffs. Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, probably the most visible of the plaintiffs, cites his Aztec heritage as instilling a “sense of responsibility as a person to protect and connect and be a part of something.” Both of his parents also connected through activism – his mother founded an Earth Guardians school in Hawai’i and his father served as an Aztec “ambassador for Mexico.” Through her extended family, New Yorker Victoria Barrett has viewed climate change both from the American perspective and the developing world. Even over her lifetime, her Honduran grandparents have steadily fought the rising levels of the sea near their home by building ever increasing barriers against flooding.
Louisianan Jayden Foytlin followed the example of her mother, Cherri, in diving into activism. In 2010, “stage-managed trips” organized for the press by BP in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster frustrated journalist Cherri Foytlin. When she hired a fisherman to take her into the Gulf, they found a pelican drenched in oil that died soon after. Determined to take action, Cherri accepted the leadership of Bold Louisiana, a group fighting oil development expansion. Although Cherri worried about her daughter’s activism, she also saw it as a constructive way for Jayden to participate.  Similarly, Jamescita Peshlakai, a state senator in Arizona who has made climate and environmental issues key to her service, influenced her Navajo daughter Jamie Butler to be active.
Importantly, many of the Climate 21 use social media and technology to promote their activism and views of climate change. The young people refuse the negative nature-technology dichotomy so loudly espoused by adults. Martinez, who aggressively uses social media and performs hip-hop music on climate change, makes this connection explicit. He notes that the “reason I’ve been able to have such a huge reach with the Earth Guardian movement is because of social media, and the way it connects us all as a global family.” Jacob Lebel, along with many others, posts videos on youtube to publicize issues. Lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, Journey Zephier, Alex Loznak, Nathan Baring, and Kiran Oommen all have Twitter and/or Instagram accounts to spread news of their activism. Others regularly use crowdfunding sources to publicize and seek support for their work. Juliana requested “adoption” to fund her participation in a 2015 climate march across the country. Miko and Isaac Vergun, as well as Zephier, used gofundme accounts to assist in traveling to various conferences and training sessions. Their highly developed use of social media allows them to connect with peers – using a media that they find familiar. Rather than technology precluding interaction with the environment, young people use it to spread their message and safeguard nature.
Although parents and other adults have often been supportive, some adults have a more negative reaction, often rooted in concerns that political activism challenges adult domination over children. For example, Jayden Foytlin of Rayne, Louisiana, lost her best friend over her involvement in the case. Her friend’s mother stated that “I don’t want nothing to do with children being in adult situations nor will any of our children. I think it’s pathetic that a young girl is even involved in something like this.” A frequent commenter on CNN’s stories, Balatonian, noted that “Kids must just remain good boys and girls, go to school and study. When they become responsible and sensible adults, then they can participate in voting for and criticizing their adult peers.”  In both of these instances, adults reflected fears of children stepping outside of prescribed roles as a subjugated class to “inappropriately” challenge adults.
The case has been weaving its way through the rather byzantine legal system over the past two years. Unlike earlier efforts, however, Juliana v. Trump has achieved some notable successes. Judge Thomas Coffin recently set a trial date of February 5, 2018. Judge Ann Aiken upheld his decision, noting that the case “is of a different order than the typical environmental case.” The Trump administration reacted to this setback by filing a writ of mandamus with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where they objected both to the “the unlawful exercise of [the court’s] jurisdiction” and “the staggering burden imposed on the federal government by the ongoing discovery” in the case. They asked that the appellate court order the lower court to dismiss the case. The Climate 21 filed a response, and eight groups supported them with amicus briefs. All now simply await the Ninth Circuit’s response or the beginning of the trial.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, the efforts of the Climate 21 provide a valuable lesson in how children perceive and interact with the environment. Although they lack a formal political voice in society, these (admittedly exceptional) young people chose to participate in a legal, peaceful protest to affect change. Their actions should remind adults that the 21st century’s children maintain an intimate connection to nature that technology helps guide and promote. The stereotypical image of our current generation of children as lessened by their contact with technology needs serious reappraisal.