Would you deprive your children of water, food or a safe home in which to live? Imagine an elected government that has free rein to sell away these basic resources from its youngest and most vulnerable citizens simply because no one stepped up to hold them in check.
This is exactly what the U.S. government under the Trump administration is doing through its federal energy policies. That is why I’m a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, the constitutional climate lawsuit brought by 21 young people against the U.S. government. We are not suing for financial reparations, but to secure a legally-binding science-based climate recovery plan that will protect our lives and the lives of future generations across the country.
Growing up, I never thought I would become an “activist,” much less sue my government. When I was four years old, my family moved from my birthplace of Quebec to a small rural town in Oregon because of its mild climate. We started an organic farm there and I grew up with clear skies and the beautiful wilderness of this country. We grow or raise nearly all of our own food from the land.
Over the past several summers, severe wildfires have burned around our farm and filled my lungs with smoke. Air quality in the Pacific Northwest declined to levels worse than in Beijing and forced me to wear a breathing mask outside for days. Fire season in my home has increased from 23 days in the 1960s to over 120 days in recent years. Scientists predict that, even with only 1 degree of warming, wildfires will burn five to six times as much land area annually in the region around my farm.
In addition, a company called Jordan Cove is seeking federal permits to build a natural gas pipeline one mile away from our farm. If built, the pipeline and associated power plant would be the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in Oregon.
Decisions to permit pipelines like Jordan Cove are only one example of how the government ultimately controls the fossil fuel energy system that produces emissions. Decades before I was born, the U.S. government had hard scientific evidence of the threat posed by emissions and yet they continue to incentivize coal over renewables and lease public lands for oil extraction. Through these and other direct actions, the U.S. government is promoting dangerous levels of fossil fuel emissions, causing climate change, and thereby violating the constitutional rights of young people to life, liberty and property.
On Monday, Oct. 29, I was supposed to be at the United States District Court for the District of Oregon participating in opening arguments for our landmark trial. The 21 of us had waited for more than three years for that moment – our day in court. Instead, with one week to go to trial, the Supreme Court temporarily placed our case on hold at the request of the Trump administration. This evasion is just the latest in a series of desperate attempts by our government to avoid facing us in a court of law. At every step of the way, the courts have ruled to allow us to proceed to trial.
We are confident that we will ultimately be allowed to present the climate science at trial, but every delay costs time we no longer have. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says humanity has just over a decade to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Since we filed this lawsuit, hundreds of conifer trees have died from drought stress on my farm due to a warming climate. My friend and co-plaintiff Jayden Foytlin’s house was flooded in the historic Louisiana floods of 2016 that were worsened by climate change.
Another one of my co-plaintiffs, Levi Draheim, 11, lives on a barrier island in Florida. Worsening hurricanes have driven him from his home in repeated evacuations and the red tides from warming waters are landing hundreds of dead sea creatures on his favourite beach. The IPCC report predicts a sea level rise that would engulf his home by the time he is 50 years old.
People often ask me how we manage to retain our hope and motivation when faced with the reality of what is happening to our planet and our futures. The fact is: We do have feasible, scientifically-tested solutions. World-renowned scientists and experts are testifying in our lawsuit that we could meet our country’s energy demands entirely from solar, wind and other renewable sources. We just need to hold our political branches accountable.
Our current situation demands that we act. Sixty per cent of all the wildlife on earth has been wiped out since 1970. It is no longer acceptable to simply be “aware.” We can’t all sue our governments, but neither will we solve climate change by arguing on social media or projecting our own individualized vision of solutions. It is only through collective, conscious actions that we will find the wisdom and community necessary to build new cities, new ways of governing that protect our freedoms and new ways of relating to each other and the earth.
My fellow plaintiffs and I can stand on the steps of the federal courthouses and appear on television and have the world hear our voices only because other human beings acted on countless small decisions striving toward a greater good every single day. Our families planted and nurtured the seeds of our values. The civil rights activists and patriots who paved the way so we could bring this lawsuit did so with their blood, as did the Indigenous people that have led the way with wisdom through centuries of injustice. In Canada, just as much as in the United States, it has never been more important for all people to put themselves on the line to enact systemic change.
Our hope is based in these actions. It does not fluctuate with the latest tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump or delays in our lawsuit. It comes from knowing that times have been dark before – and that sometimes our courts and judicial institutions have been that shining light that ushered in a new era of freedom. We are hopeful because in our actions to protect the things we love we found our place as citizens of a country and of a planet.
Even if the only thing you can do is tiny, it is the will that counts. None of us plaintiffs knew that our first small actions – attending a city council meeting, throwing a fundraising party for snow leopards, planting a garden, watching an Al Gore movie – would lead to us changing the global debate on climate change.
To decide to act in simple ways, every day, on a human scale to address a problem of such magnitude as climate change is to recognize your limitations, and to accept that you will not change the world. If you let it, it is the love and sacrifice and beauty that is already in this world that will change you – as it has changed us.
Jacob Lebel lives in Roseburg, Oregon.