“Government actions knowingly and willfully created the climate crisis. From this crisis young and future generations face increasing dangers. As courageous, creative change-makers we have the opportunity and moral authority to change the social, political, and economic structures that cause injustice and climate chaos. Youth are standing up for our fundamental right to inherit a stable and survivable planet. We have everything to gain from taking action and everything to lose from not.”
When Kelsey Cascadia Rose Juliana was a babe in arms, her parents, Tim Ingalsbee and Catia Juliana were leaders in the Warner Creek protests, protecting endangered species and old growth forests from federal timber sales in Oregon. At the time,Warner Creek was the longest blockade of a forest road by environmental activists in U.S. history.
As she grew up, Kelsey became a self-described “eco girl” in The Village School, her K-8 public charter school. She ran down the halls ducking in and out of empty classrooms making sure lights were turned off. During fourth grade, she organized her classmates to participate in the first International Day of Climate Activism.
In middle school, Kelsey cried as she presented her research paper on how climate change was endangering the polar bear population. Taking on the roles of Amy Goodman, Rachel Corrie and Yoko Ono in an original political musical put on by her 8th grade class, she grew beyond being an environmentalist toward becoming an eco-warrior.
And she was only just beginning.
By the time she was 15, before she could vote or drive, Kelsey sued the governor of Oregon. A series of events led her into the courtroom, beginning with the work of her mentor, Mary Christina Wood, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Program at the University of Oregon. Wood has spent her career studying the public trust doctrine and has devised a strategy she calls Atmospheric Trust Litigation, which asserts that the atmosphere itself should be held in public trust. The idea for the lawsuit came from Julia Olson, Wood’s colleague and the lead attorney and founder of the non-profit, Our Children’s Trust, which “elevates the voice of youth to secure the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for the benefit of all present and future generations.” The legal argument – that governments are required to protect certain “public trust” resources for current and future generations – dates back to ancient Rome. (The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public trust resources include water and shorelines.)
Kelsey started her legal advocacy in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon in 2011 when she and Olvia Cherinak became co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing the state of Oregon of violating the public trust by failing to take adequate steps to limit climate change. The lawsuit, known as Chernaik v. Brown, was dismissed by the Lane County Circuit Court, and they appealed. When their final appeal was denied nine years later, in 2020, a scathing dissent was delivered by Chief Justice Martha Walters, who declared that “the time is now” for the courts to step in—to protect future generations from the climate crisis.
Knowing the climate crisis cannot be solved at the state-level alone, Kelsey next set her sights on something far bigger —the destructive climate actions taken by the U.S. government. In 2015, Kelsey and 20 other youth from around the country—from Alaska to Florida, New York to Hawaii, and many places in between—filed a first-of-its-kind, landmark lawsuit against the Executive Branch of the United States government. In the lawsuit, known as Juliana v U.S., the youth claim that the United States, knowing full well what effect the mass burning of fossil fuel would have on the lives of present and future generations, has, through its aggregate actions, violated the youngest and future generations’ constitutionally-protected, fundamental right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life. If the youth plaintiffs succeed, the President and his heads of agencies will be ordered to create and implement a science-based Climate Recovery Plan. The case has cleared several key legal hurdles and is scheduled to begin in the District Court of Oregon on October 29th, 2018. (A list of all the youth plaintiffs as well as the history of these proceedings can be found here.)
Upon graduation from High School, Kelsey joined The Great March for Climate Action walking across the country to raise awareness about the imminent dangers of climate change. Afterward, she told the journalist Bill Moyers: “You don’t have to call yourself an activist to act…I think that’s so important that people my age really get [that] into their heads. As a younger person, I have everything to gain from taking action and everything to lose from not… It’s important that youth are the ones who are standing up because of the fact that we do have so much to lose.”
After beginning her college education in Environmental Studies at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, she returned to Eugene, Oregon to continue her education at University of Oregon and be closer to the courtrooms where her legal fight was unfolding. After finishing her undergraduate work in environmental studies and sociology, Juliana plans to become certified to teach elementary-level public school students.
In the spring of 2018, Kelsey returned to The Village School to speak to students who had been in kindergarten when she began her legal journey. She was asked this question: “How do you keep from getting discouraged and angry when you hear our government lying about the effects of fossil fuels on our climate and fighting your case with all they have?”
Kelsey responded: “This work must be done out of love. Motivation and activism and advocacy cannot come from rage or anger or hopelessness. These feelings are unsustainable, short-lived and detrimental for those harboring them, which will then, most likely, be reflected in one’s work and therefore inhibit true, lasting positive change. We cannot push society towards more positive, inclusive, sustainable directions without LOVE as the main driver of activism because you cannot burn out of love.”
Kelsey and her 20 fellow youth plaintiffs who range in age from 12-22 years of age are hopeful that they will win their case. If the courts recognize their rights, inherent in the public trust doctrine, to clean air and water, the victory will compel the U.S. government, after decades of promoting and supporting a nationwide energy system powered by fossil fuel, to immediately enact policy changes that could alter the course of human caused climate change in the United States. This outcome would have repercussions around the world.
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