Kids take to the steps of the Supreme Court to demand climate action

Plaintiffs from a youth climate lawsuit against the federal government traveled to D.C. to demand action.

CREDIT: Natasha Geiling/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Natasha Geiling/ThinkProgress

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A group of kids and young adults currently suing the federal government for its role in fueling climate change weren’t arguing their case inside of the Supreme Court on Thursday, but they hope to get there someday soon.

“It’s pretty cool to be talking about this case in Washington, D.C, on the steps of the Supreme Court, to know that we are fighting for our rights and future generations’ rights,” Zealand Bell, a 13-year-old plaintiff from Eugene, Oregon, told ThinkProgress. “It’s pretty much the fate of our whole world. If we don’t fight back, climate change will keep going. We need to act now so we can get stuff done.”

“Our lawsuit is pretty much the only thing that Trump is good for. He is providing so much amazing evidence against the U.S. government.”

They also described how the case has taken on a new sense of urgency under the Trump administration, which blatantly rejects the scientific consensus on climate change. Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” while his EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, has contradicted widely-accepted climate science on national television.


“Our lawsuit is pretty much the only thing that Trump is good for,” Jacob Lebel, a 20-year-old plaintiff in the case told ThinkProgress. “He is providing so much amazing evidence against the U.S. government.”

The plaintiffs — ranging from age nine to 21 — are part of a lawsuit against the federal government aimed at forcing climate action on a federal level. It has been described by legal experts as a landmark lawsuit because it bases its arguments not in traditional environmental statues, like the Clean Air Act, but in constitutional law.

“What this case is doing… is really getting into core fundamental human rights that are preserved by our constitution,” Julia Olson, chief legal counsel for the plaintiffs, told ThinkProgress. “And that’s getting into the core of climate change, that it threatens our fundamental rights.”

The federal lawsuit was first filed against the government in August of 2015, to mirror similar lawsuits filed in 2011 in every state in the country. The lawsuits are all spearheaded by an Oregon-based organization called Our Children’s Trust, which seeks to protect natural resources and a stable climate for future generations.


Thus far, the lawsuits’ success at the state level has been limited. Many have been thrown out by courts immediately, though a judge in Washington state ruled in the plaintiffs favor in 2016, ordering the state’s Department of Ecology to promulgate an emissions reduction rule.

The federal case also notched an important victory in 2016, with U.S. Federal Judge Ann Aiken ruling that the case could move forward to trial. That decision is currently being challenged by the federal government and the fossil fuel industry, which argue that the plaintiffs lack proper standing in the case. If the case is allowed to go forward, Olson expects the trial to begin sometime before the end of the year.

At Thursday’s rally, plaintiffs took turns reading lines from Aiken’s November decision, which described the case as “no ordinary lawsuit.”

“I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” Aiken wrote.

Despite incremental progress being made under President Obama, the lawsuit still argued that government actions — like continuing fossil fuel subsidies — were in violation of the plaintiff’s rights to a livable climate. And that case has perhaps only gotten stronger under the current administration, which seems intent on rolling back any climate action made in the past few years. In Trump’s first 100 days, he has signed multiple executive orders aimed at rolling back domestic and international climate policies, from approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines to ordering the EPA to rewrite the Clean Power Plan.

But despite facing perhaps the most environmentally-unfriendly White House in decades, the youth plaintiffs still have hope that in a courtroom — where “facts matter,” as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said at the rally — their case will prevail.


“The judicial branch is really flexing it’s muscle as a co-equal branch of government. That’s amazing to watch, and it gives me hope for this lawsuit,” Lebel said. “Trump is really scary. I’m actually very glad I was in this lawsuit when he was elected, because it gave me hope.”