These young Americans are part of a lawsuit challenging the U.S. government to protect the environment.

Robin Loznak (kids); Shutterstock (globe and dot pattern)

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.1, WHST.6-8.7

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.1, Civ.4, Civ.6, Civ.7, Civ.8, Civ.10, Civ.12, Geo.9

NCSS: Civic ideals and practices; Power, authority, and governance; Science, technology, and society; People, places, and environments


IN THE NEWS

The Environment

Standing Up for the Earth

A group of young Americans is suing the U.S. government to force it to take action on climate change

Can young people save the planet? Twenty-one of them are attempting to do just that—through America’s courts. They have filed a lawsuit against the United States government, demanding that it take immediate action to slow climate change. 

Scientists say the effects of climate change present a clear danger to the planet (see slideshow, below). In the U.S., many areas are now threatened by rising sea levels or historic flooding. In other places, like California, decreased rainfall has made wildfire seasons longer and more destructive each year. 

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, range in age from 11 to 23. They’re often referred to as the climate kids. They argue that the U.S. Constitution requires the government to preserve the environment—and that time is running out. 

“We need pressing, urgent, aggressive action,” says Kelsey Juliana, 23, of Eugene, Oregon, one of the plaintiffs. “We’re talking about the survival of humanity.”

The lawsuit could force the government to make some hard decisions—and determine if Americans, including you, have a right to a stable climate. Here is what you need to know. 

Can young people save the planet? Twenty-one of them are trying to do just that—through America’s courts. They have filed a lawsuit against the United States government. They are demanding that the government take fast action to slow climate change.

Scientists say the effects of climate change present a clear danger to the planet (see slideshow, below). Many areas of the U.S. are now threatened by rising sea levels or historic flooding. In other places, like California, decreased rainfall has made wildfire seasons longer. Wildfires are more destructive each year.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, range in age from 11 to 23. They are often referred to as the climate kids. They argue that the U.S. Constitution requires the government to preserve the environment—and that time is running out.

“We need pressing, urgent, aggressive action,” says Kelsey Juliana, 23, of Eugene, Oregon. She is one of the plaintiffs. “We’re talking about the survival of humanity.”

The lawsuit could force the government to make some hard decisions. It could determine if Americans, including you, have a right to a stable climate. Here is what you need to know.

1. Climate Change Is an Urgent Problem

Climate change is chiefly caused by the burning of fossil fuels—such as coal and oil—to power factories, homes, and cars. This releases gases, such as carbon dioxide into the air. These gases collect in our planet’s atmosphere, trapping the sun’s heat close to Earth’s surface. 

The more humans rely on fossil fuels, the more heat gets trapped. The result: Earth’s average temperature is increasing. Experts say this is causing ice to melt at the North and South poles, leading ocean levels to rise. They also say it has pushed changes in the planet’s climate to extremes, making wet areas much wetter and dry ones drier.

Last October, the United Nations issued an alarming report. It warned that if Earth’s temperature keeps rising, the damage may be “irreversible.” The only solution: The world’s countries must drastically lower the level of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. To do this, they must sharply reduce the use of fossil fuels and switch to renewable resources, such as wind and solar power.

Climate change is mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil. They are used to power factories, homes, and cars. The burning releases carbon dioxide and other gases into the air. Those gases collect in our planet’s atmosphere and trap the sun’s heat close to Earth’s surface.

The more humans rely on fossil fuels, the more heat gets trapped. As a result, Earth’s average temperature is increasing. Experts say this is causing ice to melt at the North and South poles. That leads to a rise in ocean levels. Experts also say the temperature increase has pushed changes in the planet’s climate to extremes. It is making wet areas much wetter and dry ones drier.

The United Nations issued an alarming report last October. It warned that if Earth’s temperature keeps rising, the damage may be “irreversible.” The only solution: The world’s countries must drastically lower the level of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. To do this, they must sharply reduce the use of fossil fuels and switch to renewable resources, such as wind and solar power.

2. The Lawsuit’s Strategy

Converting to renewable energy would require an enormous effort by each nation. The climate kids say U.S. presidents and Congress haven’t taken appropriate action to cut fossil fuel use and stop global warming. Their lawsuit is meant to force the government to devise a plan to do so.

The suit argues that the U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to preserve the environment for the people who will inherit it—including the climate kids. By not controlling the use of fossil fuels, the lawsuit says, the U.S. has violated their “constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.”

Each member of the lawsuit has a personal reason for taking part. Levi Draheim, 11, lives off the coast of Florida. For him, it’s a simple question of his home surviving. “If climate change worsens, the barrier island that I live on will be gone,” he has said.

Making a change to renewable energy would require an enormous effort by each nation. The climate kids say U.S. presidents and Congress have not taken appropriate action to cut fossil fuel use and stop global warming. Their lawsuit is meant to force the government to come up with a plan to do so.

The suit argues that the U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to preserve the environment for the people who will inherit it—including the climate kids. The lawsuit says that by not controlling the use of fossil fuels, the U.S. has violated their “constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.”

Each member of the lawsuit has a personal reason for taking part. Levi Draheim, 11, lives off the coast of Florida. For him, it is a simple question of his home surviving. “If climate change worsens, the barrier island that I live on will be gone,” he has said.

3. What It Means for You

The climate kids originally filed their lawsuit in 2015, but it has been repeatedly delayed by the government. The Justice Department argues that U.S. environmental policy shouldn’t be dictated by the courts. As this story went to press, a federal judge in Oregon was deciding whether the suit can go forward. 

Still, it seems Juliana is just part of a wave of environmental activism led by young people. In March, for example, thousands of U.S. students walked out of school in a nationwide climate strike. The walkout was part of Youth Strike 4 Climate, a global student movement demanding action on climate change.

After all, if global warming isn’t stopped, today’s kids will be the ones left dealing with its disastrous effects in coming decades. As Nick Venner, 17, one of the Juliana plaintiffs, puts it: “We are the future.” 

The climate kids originally filed their lawsuit in 2015. It has been repeatedly delayed by the government. The Justice Department argues that U.S. environmental policy should not be dictated by the courts. As this story went to press, a federal judge in Oregon was deciding whether the suit can go forward.

Still, it seems Juliana is just part of a wave of environmental activism led by young people. In March, thousands of U.S. students walked out of school in a nationwide climate strike. The walkout was part of Youth Strike 4 Climate. This is a global student movement demanding action on climate change.

If global warming is not stopped, today’s kids will be the ones left dealing with its dreadful effects in coming decades. As Nick Venner, 17, one of the Juliana plaintiffs, puts it, “We are the future.”

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