These Kids Can’t Vote, But They Can Sue

In Washington state, eight kids took the government to court to safeguard their future through stronger regulations on carbon emissions. Here's what they gained.
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Andrea Rodgers (left), Julia Olson (right), with six of the kids involved in the suit. Photo courtesy of Our Children's Trust.

Gabe Mandell speaks fast and with excitement, his sentences peppered with phrases like constitutional duty, ocean acidification, and we’re here to get a job done.

“The best available science says we need to reduce annual carbon emissions to an atmospheric concentration of 350 parts per million,” he told me over the phone while sitting at the kitchen table with his mom.

He’s definitely not your typical eighth-grader.

In between middle school, tae kwon do, and saxophone lessons, the 13-year-old, along with seven other young environmental activists, sued the government of Washington state. By legally challenging a state agency’s approach to carbon emission regulation, they hoped to protect the planet for future generations.

“We’re the ones who have to deal with it: the rising tides, dying crops, and acid in the oceans,” he says. “This is our future. It’s our right to protect it.”

“This is our future. It’s out right to protect it.”

Yesterday, after a year-and-a-half of legal proceedings, Judge Hollis Hill denied the eight kids’ petition to the Washington Department of Ecology (commonly known as “Ecology”). In it, they had demanded that Ecology use more current science when regulating carbon emissions. (The activists initially filed the petition in June of 2014; they sued the state after it was denied). 

“They can’t vote, they can’t influence policy that way,” said Andrea Rodgers, a lawyer for Western Environmental Law Center representing the kids. “This is how they make their voices heard.”

Earlier this month, both sides presented oral arguments before the King County appeals court in Seattle. The kids argument rested on the right to a “healthful and pleasant environment” guaranteed by the state of Washington—a guarantee, Rodgers said, that Ecology has a duty to fulfill.

But Ecology argued it had no duty to enforce the measures called for by the plaintiffs. Representatives said the agency is already taking steps to reduce climate change per an executive order issued by Governor Jay Inslee. Though Inslees order, inspired by a meeting with the young environmentalists in July, mandated Ecology to create a carbon emissions cap, it was based on  targets set in 2008—using science that Rodgers, Mandell, and even Ecology’s own December 2014 report all consider outdated.

For Mandell, who says he’s been advocating for the environment since “Day 1,” the science is all that matters. “I’m surprised whenever they say [capping carbon] will hurt the economy,” he said. “If we don’t change, there won’t be an economy!”

“[The youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming,”

The kids don’t consider yesterday’s ruling a total loss. Although Hill denied the petition (on the grounds that Ecology is already undertaking other carbon regulations and that the court lacks the authority to tell Ecology what to consider when developing air quality standards), she affirmed something else: Ecology has the authority and duty to protect air and land quality for future generations, and the kids are constitutionally entitled to a healthy environment. “[The youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming,” Hill wrote in her ruling.

“The ball is in Ecology’s court now” says Rodgers, who is happy that Hill's ruling reinforced the legal arguments Rodgers made to the state. If Ecology’s future rules do not take the well-being of future generations into account, Rodgers said the kids can appeal.

Advocates hope the public visibility and precedent set by the ruling may help similar lawsuits pending throughout the country: There are six suits being brought by kids against states and the federal government right now, all centered on future generations' rights to a healthy environment.

“You look at the civil rights movement, gay marriage, often times there was one court decision that set them off,” says Rodgers. “This might be a decision that does that.”