With the international climate talks wrapped in Durban, South Africa the reviews are mixed. World leaders touted their success in reaching the Durban Platform, but observers outside the negotiations are much more skeptical. Dave Roberts recognized, ” [C]ompared to what’s needed, a failure; compared to what’s possible, decent,” and noted that, “The world is still on course to 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) and higher, i.e., disaster.” Ruth Davis, Greenpeace UK chief policy adviser concluded, “This deal is a lot better than no deal . . . . That said, we can’t keep coming back to these annual talks to agree deals that fall so far short of what the science, rather than the politics, requires.”

To stop us from falling short, our world leaders simply need to look to a new generation of activists for the answer.

Across America, our youth are raising their voices on the streets and in the courts calling on the U.S. and state governments to implement Climate Recovery Plans that are based in science. This all began on Mother’s Day this year when youth activists filed legal actions against 49 of the 50 states and the federal government to force action on climate change.

The litigation is based on two deeply respected and engrained legal principles. First, the Public Trust Doctrine is one of the oldest principles known to civilized government and holds governments accountable to protect the resources we all share in common and on which we depend upon for our very survival, such as the air, water and wildlife. Second, the principle of intergenerational justice, a legal and ethical obligation that is enshrined in international human rights law but simply put, it means, that the adults can’t have a party on the planet and leave it a mess for our kids. (For more context on the principle of intergenerational justice, see this article by Burns H. Weston – PDF.)  When you combine the Public Trust Doctrine with the principles of intergenerational justice and passionate youth who are fighting for their future, we have an unprecedented approach to climate litigation that goes back to a very basic principal: trust.

You may wonder what do these kids want from the court? This answer is simple too. They want: 

  • The court to say out loud that the atmosphere is a resource we all share;
  • Since the atmosphere is a shared resource, that it be protected, in trust, by our governments; and
  • That protection means adopting and implementing a Climate Recovery Plan that is based in science.

No money damages. No punitive damages. No big settlement. They are just asking we adults to develop and implement a smart strategy to protect our atmosphere and their futures. Very reasonable.

But most of all, you may wonder who these youth are? They are from cities, small towns, farms. They are of all ages. They are black, white, brown. Some come from families that are well off. Others are poor. Others in between. They’re all playful. Some are athletes. Some paint. Some act. They all love seem to have a deep love of music. They love their brothers and sisters and those with pets, love their pets. They are all so different yet they share two things in common. They all hope to live in an ecologically healthy world and they are all scared they may not get to.

For a small window into the lives on one of the youth plaintiffs, meet Nelson Kanuk. Nelson is now 17 and is from Kipnuk, Alaska. Nelson was curious about climate change and when he finally understood what climate change was, he thought, “What could I do to help?” He concluded, “I thought that would help a lot to tell my story about how we’re being impacted by climate change on this side of the world.” Here is his story:

This video is part of a series we are producing with our partners at the iMatter campaign. To watch the second video in this series, TRUST Montana with John Thiebes, click here. To watch the first video, TRUST California with Alec Loorz, click here.

Nelson – just like all the youth plaintiffs – is daring and is a visionary. Shouldn’t our world leaders share these same characteristics? If you are a world leader reading this now, I dare you to follow Nelson’s lead and the lead of all the youth that are taking their case to the courts seeking a smart strategy to address climate change. And if you weren’t inside the negotiations in Durban I hope you will support our youth by sharing your story here.

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