In a landmark lawsuit, 21 children are suing the federal government. By subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, they say, the government is prioritizing short-term profit and the concerns of current generations over their right to a future. ©Jeffrey, flickr

In the environmental-action and wildlife-conservation world—the two go hand in hand, as we need healthy environments for the animal kingdom to prosper—there’s a lot of talk about preserving our planet and its biodiversity for “future generations.” A lot of what we do, we say, is in their name.

In truth, however, we haven’t done a very good job of watching over the natural world for them. Species continue to disappear, and our atmosphere proceeds to degrade. But a recent news item gives me a great deal of hope for the young people of today and those who will come after them.

On November 10, 2016, a federal judge in Oregon, Judge Ann Aiken, ruled that a climate lawsuit brought against the U.S. government by a group of 21 youths from across the U.S. could move forward.


African wild dogs are one of the most endangered mammals worldwide. These dogs don’t fare well in excessive heat and don’t have the option of heading to cooler areas at higher altitudes. To orchestrate their attacks, they need to hunt during the day; but as temperatures continue to rise, the number of sufficiently cooler daytime hours available for hunting is diminishing. As a result, fewer wild dog pups survive.

If we adults keep putting short-term profits ahead of long-term planetary health and continue to stand by as the climate unnaturally and catastrophically warms, at least our children are courageous enough to call us to account.

Juliana v. United States

On behalf of the young plaintiffs, who range in age from 9 to 20, the Oregon-based, nonprofit Our Children’s Trust filed a legal action in every state and at the federal level, claiming that the U.S. government’s actions to address climate change have been inadequate and that they endanger young people.

Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust and a lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued in court that for decades, the federal government has understood the threat of climate change and knowingly still put the lives of future generations in jeopardy.

More floods are consistent with a warming planet. Here, a Louisiana National Guard soldier evacuates a child from flood waters caused by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. ©Sgt. Rashawn D. Price, U.S. Army

Olson argued that current efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient and not aligned with scientific data. Basing the lawsuit on the idea of the public trust doctrine—which states that the U.S. government must protect commonly held elements, such as fish, waterways and wildlife—she contended that the government must also protect the commonly held atmosphere. Therefore, by taking inadequate action to address climate change, the government is failing to protect the public trust. The suit goes on to say that the harms caused by climate change are preventable if the government acts to hasten the transition to a zero-carbon economy.

Specifically, the children are making the claim that their rights to life, liberty and property are being infringed upon by the more frequent droughts, rising seas and stronger storms that come with global warming. By permitting fossil fuel development and subsidizing the industry, say the children in this case, the government is willfully prioritizing short-term profit, convenience and the concerns of current generations over those of future ones. And, say the plaintiffs, the government has continued to prioritize these short-term gains for more than five decades with full knowledge of the extreme dangers they posed.

The Somaliland drought of 2011/2012 left this family, a mother with four children, virtually destitute. ©Oxfam East Africa

Oregon resident and lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana alleges that algal blooms harm her drinking water and that low water levels caused by drought kill the wild salmon in her diet. Other plaintiffs suffer from asthma, have had their homes overrun by raw sewage during extreme flooding and have had their personal safety put in peril by increased wildfires.

Fundamental right to a climate capable of sustaining human life

According to a new paper in Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published on November 9, 2016, if humans carry on with “business as usual”—using large amounts of fossil fuels—the Earth’s average temperature could rise by 4.78 degrees Celsius (40.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to 7.36 degrees Celsius (45.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. That means by the end of this century, densely populated parts of our planet, such as areas of China, India and the eastern United States—will be too hot for human habitation. Our bodies wouldn’t be able to sweat enough during the summer months to keep us alive. Following that reality would be conflicts over resources, mass migrations and economic collapse. Global society could break down, effectively becoming an apocalypse.

The Paris accord is attempting to keep warming down to 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 degrees Fahrenheit). If the U.S. pulls out of that agreement, it could be the start of such a dire scenario.

The generation that created the first Earth Day should understand that those who follow them will be the ones most adversely affected by climate change.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken wrote, “Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” Juliana v. United States will now go to trial sometime in 2017 and could eventually find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Trial of the century

This lawsuit has been called a lot of things: the “biggest case on the planet,” “the trial of the millennium,” “a turning point in United States constitutional history” and “a win for the strategy of fighting climate change through the judicial branch.”

It could also be called a very long shot. 

What it is for sure is a sign of hopefulness regarding the upcoming generation. These children recognize that they and those who will follow them will be the ones most affected by runaway climate change and global warming. Even if our generation, the one that created the first Earth Day and the modern environmental movement, can’t see that, they do.

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us.” What will we choose to do? ©Philippe Put, flickr

Julia Olson, the kids’ attorney, closed her argument with a quote from environmental writer Terry Tempest Williams: “The eyes of the future are looking back at us, and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

Perhaps our children will make us finally take a good look at what we’re doing.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,