On Monday 29 October, the trial for landmark constitutional lawsuit Juliana v. United States was originally scheduled to start. This lawsuit was filed by 21 young Americans with the support of Our Children’s Trust in 2015, asserting that the U.S. government violated the youths’ human rights by allowing activities that harm the climate and urging the government to adopt methods for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The group is involved in similar legal actions in almost every U.S. state as well as many other climate suits around the world.
For the past three years, the young plaintiffs have tackled attempt after attempt to have the case thrown out. This was the case even before Donald Trump took office, but the lawsuit has inevitably faced increased difficulty under the current administration. Ahead of Monday, the Trump administration filed a motion with the United States Supreme Court to delay the trial, in order to review a request by the defendants to dismiss the case.
In spite of the delay, dozens of rallies were organized in solidarity with the plaintiffs, now with the added purpose of fighting for the right of these young people to be heard in court. From Oregon to New York City, climate activists gathered to demand that the U.S. government learns a new word: climate justice. As confirmed by the recent IPCC report, young people everywhere are being robbed of their life chances by government inaction and nonchalance. These are children who will likely see much of Earth uninhabitable within their lifetime.
Ever since the latest IPCC report was released, I joined many others in indulging in a couple of weeks of collective panic and despair. I tried to crawl out of my climate depression by turning my attention to these kids and making my way to the Washington D.C. rally outside the Supreme Court. It helped. I went home to check the latest news regarding another young climate activist who has been making headlines this autumn: 15-year old Greta Thunberg from Sweden.
This September, Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish parliament in central Stockholm every day for two weeks on a strike from school in order to force politicians to face the truth about the climate crisis and start treating it like one. She quickly gained many allies all around the world, many of whom now go on strike every Friday in front of parliaments and local governments to make the same demands. Since September, Greta Thunberg has spoken at rallies in front of the European Parliament, and led a crowd of over 10,000 in Helsinki’s largest ever climate march.
I find out that she is currently in the UK to attend the kickoff rally of the Extinction Rebellion on Parliament Square in London, Wednesday 31 October. This movement urges citizens to commit repeated acts of disruptive, non-violent civil disobedience, risking arrest if necessary. It gathers activists ready to go to prison in order to demand that the the UK declares a state of emergency, takes action to create a zero carbon economy by 2025, and creates a national assembly of ordinary people to decide what our zero carbon future will look like.
Many dismiss initiatives like Juliana v. United States, school strikes, or the Extinction Rebellion as long shots at best and alarmist hysteria at worst. These skeptics must have been highly selective in their reading habits over the past decade. They must also have lived somewhere rather isolated and air-conditioned during the summer of 2018, which saw deadly heatwaves, hurricanes, and wildfires make the effects of climate change all too tangible all over the world. In July, the Juliana v. United States movement rallied outside the courthouse in Eugene, Oregon as smoke from the California wildfires filled the air. Climate change is no longer abstract, and even less so for those of us who expect to be alive around 2040, by which the IPCC estimates that some of the most severe environmental crises will have begun to take effect.
Righteous desperation is a fully rational response to what awaits us. It is grossly unfair that young people should bear the burden of shaking up world governments, when older generations (and mostly white, rich men in the Western world) consistently carry the greatest share of responsibility for global emissions. It is high time that we expand our vocabulary in the realm of green politics and start prioritizing talking about climate justice – for nations and communities outside of the West who will be the most vulnerable to coming catastrophes, for migrants who will be chased out of their homes by floods and fire, and for children who through no fault of their own happened to be born into a world in crisis.
Climate justice gives us a toolkit and a call to action. It means thinking about climate change as a human rights emergency, as a political (and legal) challenge to which collective action is the best remedy. It makes us better at taking into account the differential and hierarchical effects among different populations as we learn how to adapt to and mitigate climate disaster – the less power you have, the more vulnerable you tend to be. This is the gift of a lesson that these young activists are giving us.
If you, like me, like most of us, often find yourself feeling lost on what to do as an individual and as a citizen in order to fight for climate justice, a fun new green lifehack appears to be emerging: look to the kids, and join one of their rallies. Chances are that it’s better organized anyway.