Does the U.S. Have a Legal Responsibility to Stop Climate Change?
Seven teenagers set a new precedent for environmental action in May 2011 by suing the federal government for not taking measures against climate change. They claim that the government’s policies regarding climate change are squandering natural resources.
The young plaintiffs, led by 17-year-old Alec Loorz, filed a total of 10 suits against the federal government and individual states under the public trust doctrine, a legal principle derived from English Common Law which holds that the government is responsible for protecting resources—like water and wilderness—in trust for the public and future generations.
The legal action is supported by a coalition of groups called the iMatter Youth Council, which is petitioning the government for a 6 percent reduction in global CO2 each year, an emissions cap at 2011 levels, and the reforestation of compromised ecosystems.
The preliminary injunction hearing was originally slated to be held in December 2011, but has been moved from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., at the request of the federal government. A new date for the hearing has yet to be announced.
Lindsay Kucera: If you would, please tell me a little bit of background about yourself and your organization.
Alec Loorz: I’ve been a climate change activist for my entire teenaged life, ever since I saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth when I was 12. After getting into a heated argument with my best friend at school the next day, I made a commitment to stop global warming in my lifetime (and it was okay because I was 12). I decided I wanted to give presentations just like my hero Mr. Gore, and, after being rejected from his training organization because of my age, I basically just did it myself.
I started this organization called Kids vs Global Warming. I made a little website, developed a presentation, and then somehow started getting invited to events all over the country. I’m now 17 and I’ve spoken to close to 300,000 people from all over the country and the world. Also, last year, I and my organization (now being referred to as the iMatter Movement) organized an event called the iMatter March, where thousands of youth from over 160 communities in 45 countries stood up and marched in their streets to raise their voices against climate change. I’m also involved in a large legal action against the U.S. government.
Lindsay Kucera: What prompted you to file these lawsuits, and why choose this avenue to have your voices heard?
Alec Loorz: About a year and a half ago, I was connected with a group of attorneys developing a legal theory called Atmospheric Trust Litigation. Basically, it says that our government actually has a legal responsibility to protect the planet and atmosphere for future generations, as part of public trust doctrine and common law, which have been around for many, many years. It’s like if your father put a thousand dollars in a trust fund to be taken out when you turn 18, and then he goes and gambles it all away when you’re 12. If this happened, you would have the legal right to sue him. So that’s basically what is happening in this lawsuit. Our government is responsible for keeping our atmosphere clean and healthy so that we can enjoy it when we grow up. But they’ve failed to do so, so we are holding them accountable.
Lindsay Kucera: What do you hope will come as a final result of the suits?
Alec Loorz: The main thing we’re demanding is that our government develop a comprehensive plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 6 percent every year starting now, along with a 100 gigaton carbon sequestration plan (which basically means planting lots and lots and lots of trees). This plan was developed by Dr. James Hansen, one of the world’s top climate scientists from NASA, as well as a team of top climatologists from around the world. It is what science says needs to happen if we actually want to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
We are also asking the government to recognize the atmosphere as a public trust that must be protected for my generation and every generation to come. And above all, we are demanding that the people in charge of our future begin to govern as if our future matters.
Lindsay Kucera: Is there anything you feel is especially important for people to know about your organization? About your mission?
Alec Loorz: iMatter is planning some very exciting events, including another global day of marches and a large event in Washington, D.C. planned for Earth Day, April 22 of this year. We are also working on training programs for young people, working to help youth become powerful revolutionary activists in their communities, doing everything from giving presentations to blogging to planning events. If anyone is interested in any of this, please visit our Facebook page.
I believe that our generation really does have the power to be able to shift the way our entire society lives and thinks to create a truly sustainable society. I really think it’s what we were born to do. So let’s make it happen. Let’s change the world!
Lindsay Kucera interviewed Alec Loorz for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Lindsay is a YES! intern.
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