At the small liberal arts college where I teach, it’s hard for students to miss class with any degree of anonymity.
But last semester, one of my students, Kelsey Juliana, gave the most compelling excuse for missing class that I’ve heard in 16 years of teaching. She was flying to Oregon to sue the federal government for failure to protect youth from climate change’s impacts.
As a teacher, writer, and mother, I call that an excused absence.
On April 8, 2016, the federal District Court in Eugene, Ore., decided in favor of 21 plaintiffs, ages 8-19 years old, and Dr. James Hansen, in their case brought against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry. The decision denied motions seeking to dismiss the climate change lawsuit, which claims failure of the U.S. to protect youth from greenhouse gas emissions is a violation of their constitutional rights.
This decision advanced the legal fight to require the federal government to implement a plan to limit carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to 350 ppm by 2100. Oral arguments for the federal climate lawsuit are scheduled for Tuesday in Eugene, Oregon.
Much is at stake in this case brought by 21 young people from across the country. For starters, the health of my own children is on the line.
And in this divisive political season, I want my children, my students and other parents to know that youth are taking legal action to protect their right to a healthy future.
An unusual element of the case includes the unlikely allies of the federal government and its agencies, along with fossil fuel interests of the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.
Argued by attorney Julia Olson with Our Children’s Trust, the complaint alleges the government violated the Fifth Amendment rights of the youth to due process and equal protection. The case also rests on the public trust doctrine, which asserts the government has a responsibility to protect natural systems for future generations.
Youth in other states have secured similar wins to advance science-based climate legislation, with lawsuits proceeding in Oregon and Colorado.
As a teacher, I have ferried students to climate rallies, participated in climate action trainings and designed climate justice tours across the state of North Carolina.
As a writer, I have interviewed faith leaders in congregations to document actions to protect the climate, such as installing solar panels on sanctuaries.
But as a mother, I often wonder if these shotgun actions will produce substantive changes to help my children mitigate the climate crisis. The climate movement needs diverse tactics and strategies at different scales, and I need to harness my own work to something larger than my local actions.
This federal lawsuit provides critical momentum for the work of my students and greater hope that my own children aren’t powerless in the face of our systemic addictions to fossil fuels and virtual inaction by our legislators.
I’m not naïve enough to think one federal court case will tilt the momentum for climate action worldwide. But as a 50-year old parent, I’m old enough to know that legal decisions – harnessed with sustained grassroots action – can shift the scales, at a time when we need positive and united change to protect our children’s futures.
The night after the April court case, my student e-mailed me with an update from Oregon: She had said goodbye to the other plaintiffs, who were heading home after having a sleepover together. Sitting at my desk late at night, with my two children asleep, I smiled at the image of youth suing the government - and then staying up late to savor each other’s company, enjoying their fundamental right to a healthy life.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC.