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Youth Standing Up for Their Rights and Their Planet

Climate Justice Climate Courts Environmental Justice Public Participation

How would I describe the world we live in?

Well, the world we live in has molded me into an activist. I am of a generation that has been required to stand up and demand our rights, as our future is uncertain. More than perhaps any time in human history, our planet and the life it supports are struggling mightily.

The need to address climate change, the likely sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history, toxic water pollution, and environmental and climate injustices is beyond urgent. Because not enough has been done quickly enough on any of these issues, youth activists must pick up the torch and push to get things done.

I am Faith Duggan, and for the past 4 months, I have been a marketing and communications intern specializing in digital literacy at the Center for Progressive Reform. And unlike my brilliant coworkers, I am not a legal expert nor a policy guru, but just like them, my future is directly tied to the health of our planet.

During my time at the Center, I have learned about climate wins throughout the country on Season 7 of the Connect the Dots podcast, but I’ve also read blog posts featuring the U.S. Supreme Court overturning climate regulations, politicians supporting and protecting fossil fuel corporations and initiatives, and how climate change affects underserved and overburdened communities more than any other group.

With my deeper understanding of the climate crisis, I pose several questions:

  • Who are the perpetrators of climate change?
  • Who is responsible for holding them accountable for their actions?
  • What should accountability for climate change look like?

Holding the fossil fuel industry and policymakers accountable

In my eyes, the perpetrators of climate change can be best described in three words: fossil fuel corporations. In addition to prioritizing profits at the expense of people and our planet, this industry has also heavily lobbied government officials and contributed to the campaign coffers of candidates at all levels of government. This political support has created enormous political power, so on top of the social and cultural might these corporations already hold, they’ve also bought into our government to such an extent that they have undue influence and an outsized impact on our climate, energy, and environmental policies.

For years, the fearless climate leaders of my generation have thrust the role of environmental responsibility to the forefront and demanded that government officials take action. Globally, Greta Thunberg of Sweden challenges all world leaders into taking immediate action; on a statewide level, Adah Crandall speaks on the intersectionality of transportation and climate change; and federally, 21 young adults have been working for years for a court to hear their constitutional climate case — Juliana v. United States — which argues that by burning fossil fuels, the government is impeding younger generations’ rights to life, liberty, and property.

The youth plaintiffs originally brought the Juliana case to the courts in 2015, and after several years’ of back-and-forths, the case was eventually dismissed in 2021. However, an Oregon federal judge allowed the young adults to file a slightly amended case and ruled that it could move forward.

The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) under Presidents Obama, Trump, and Biden has argued that the case has no legal standing as the “climate system” and atmosphere are not considered to be in the federal public trust. The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Julia Olson, says that the DOJ under the Biden administration is attacking the case “as aggressively as the Trump administration.”

But on August 14, Held v. Montana set what could become a model ruling as 16 Montana youths won their case against the state. The judge held the state government accountable for violating Montana residents’ constitutional right to a “clean and healthy environment.” While federal courts — and other states — are under no obligation to follow the Montana ruling, it could provide momentum for other cases, especially if the Montana Supreme Court upholds the trial judge’s ruling.

The importance of these and other youth-led climate cases? To enact change, children, teenagers, and young adults must be able to rise up and fight for their future and to ensure their rights to life, liberty, property, and a clean and healthy environment. They also need to be able to hold decision-makers accountable for policies and actions that infringe on those rights and worsen climate change. Success in cases like these can be one important step in doing so.

Addressing environmental racism and climate injustice

While holding the fossil fuel industry and policymakers accountable for climate change is important, it’s only one part of the climate solution. As young people have highlighted through worldwide climate protests and strikes over the past several years, the harms of climate change don’t fall on everyone equally.

In the United States and other countries, environmental racism and climate injustices magnify climate harms for structurally marginalized people and communities. People of color and financially burdened individuals often bear the worst burdens in the aftermath of disasters and extreme weather caused or worsened by climate change. Due to systemic bias and discriminatory practices (past and present), these communities are often excluded from representation in political processes. This can dampen or even remove their voices and needs from discussions about helpful and effective climate solutions.

Outside the United States, structurally marginalized communities struggle on an international level. While the climate crisis affects the United States, it has not yet affected the GDP or livelihoods of the majority of the country. Unfortunately, that cannot be said for countries that depend on agriculture or natural resources for their livelihoods.

For example, as the ice caps melt, water will rise, and countries like Bangladesh with low-lying coastlines will struggle as cyclones and salt water intrusion damage agricultural land. And as the sea level rises, many residents will be displaced as their homes will be flooded.

With injustices like these present and in many cases growing, many are calling for environmental reparations. While such reparations would help millions and should be incorporated into accountability policies, taking responsibility needs to start with acknowledging actions and effects and pushing toward a more sustainable future.

In many respects, the youth of the United States — and the world — are leading the way on climate accountability, climate justice, and climate solutions. They may be up against formidable and powerful giants, but as more young activists and leaders rise up and come together to fight for their health and their future, David might just defeat Goliath.

Editor’s note: Climate justice organizers are planning another round of international events in mid-September. This includes a September 17 march in New York City. For more information, visit Fridays for Future and the Global Fight to End Fossil Fuels.

Climate Justice Climate Courts Environmental Justice Public Participation

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