CLIMATE Youth Protestors
Kelsey Juliana is 22-years-old, and she’s only got 16 per cent battery left on her phone. This morning she has been helping set up a sustainability event in her town of Eugene, Oregon. By midday the phone is a problem. Rushing down the corridors of the University of Oregon campus in search of a power outlet to begin a Skype conversation – there’s an all-too-easy stereotype of the internet hungry, socially over committed millennial. But there the preconceptions end. This lunchtime she has agreed to talk about her role as the named plaintiff in the landmark Juliana v United States climate change trial.
As a millennial generation climate activist, time is not on Juliana’s side. When pressed, she shares how she was born in a woodland cabin to activist parents. How aged three, she stormed a kindergarten stage chanting ‘clear cuts are bad’; how in junior school she raided a waste dump to recycle school supplies and how by age 11 she already felt burnt out. She found focus again when connecting with other young activists and attending lectures on climate change by ‘the father of climate science’ James Hansen, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben. While her parents had used their bodies physically against logging lorries – Kelsey began looking for her own space in which she could make a stand against a rapidly warming planet.
After graduating from high school in the summer of 2014, she spent four months walking across the US from Nebraska to Washington DC on the Great March for Climate Change, diverting along the way in September of that year to join an estimated 311,000 protesters at the People’s Climate March in New York organised by McKibben. Since August 2015 she has been in-and-out of the Eugene District Court as both the Obama and successive Trump administrations attempted to block her case from going to trial.
Juliana, her fellow 21 plaintiffs – now aged between 11 and 22 – as well as her pro bono lawyers from the Our Children’s Trust Foundation contend that failures by the government to control emissions from the fossil fuel industry threaten their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property. Each plaintiff has made personalised depositions about damages from across the US, with coral reefs and fishery destruction in Hawaii to mass salmon die-off and reduced snow for recreation in Juliana’s home state of Oregon. They also contend that carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere flouts the universal public trust doctrine whereby all governments hold natural resources in trust for the well-being of the governed and future generations. Despite constant government actions delaying the trial, the Juliana case law is already being taught in more than 30 US university legal courses.
22-year-old Kelsey Juliana, from Eugene, Oregon has been participating in and leading climate campaigns since the age of ten, including a 1,600-mile march from Nebraska to Washington, DC
Climate science itself is not on trial in the Juliana case. It’s the time frame of action and expediency of decarbonisation measures that the plaintiffs are taking their government to task on. The authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in October 2018 that current national commitments to curb emissions will still create warming at twice the recommended safe limit of 1.5°C within the youngest plaintiff ’s potential lifetime by 2100. If successful, the Juliana plaintiffs have broad-brush demands for rapid action to phase out carbon dioxide emissions and reduce its atmospheric concentration from the current 410 parts per million (we started circa 270ppm before the industrial revolution), to the number recommended by McKibben’s eponymous organisation 350.org.
THE YOUTH CLIMATE MOVEMENT ‘Youth are quite selfish,’ Juliana asserts. ‘That’s perhaps why we are so enraged, and taking this issue so personally.’ Young people are going to live longer and experience the serious late 21st century consequences of climate change that current decision makers are creating. The ‘selfishness’ she identifies is about younger generations – some of them not even old enough to vote – wresting back the control dials of climate change to ensure an inhabitable planet for when the current polluters are long since dead. The heightened sensibility of youth, Juliana argues, makes them particularly effective climate activists. ‘We are trying to understand morals, ethics, values – and when we recognise that the way society is functioning without us is harming us – that’s unfair, that’s unacceptable. We also hold a certain moral authority. We’re not professionals. We’re not making claims or holding
20 • Geographical