Co-authored with Julia Olson
Over the last year, we filmed youth from across the country – literally from Boston, Massachusetts to a village just inland from the Bering Sea – whose lives have already been changed by the deterioration of our Earth’s atmosphere. These award-winning video portraits showcase how our youth are bravely taking legal action against our governments’ collective failure to take serious climate action. This unprecedented legal effort is called Atmospheric Trust Litigation (ATL) and it is rooted in what is perhaps the most fundamental duty of government. For centuries, governments all over the world have been bound, both legally and morally, to protect the essential resources we all share and depend upon for our very survival. And not only for those of us who are alive today: governments are legally required to protect resources, in trust, for future generations. Our generation’s failure to protect our air through legislative, executive, or UN action left our youth with only one option. They are taking their cases to the judiciary in every state and to the U.S. government, hoping that this third branch of government will protect their fundamental constitutional rights.
In our lives, we are sometimes fortunate enough to meet someone who just knocks our socks off with their goodness and depth of character, someone who can speak as easily about solutions as problems, and who does so with an endless reservoir of hope. We had that experience when we met Eshe Sherley in Boston on the day she turned 18. In our short time with this young woman, we were moved to tears and laughter. We were inspired and educated. We were deeply humbled, yet again, at the insightful and engaged capacity of our youngest generation.
This is an extraordinary week. Hurricane Sandy has upended millions of busy lives, which were already stretched by an exhausting campaign season. The hurricane hammered the East Coast and reminded us that the likelihood of extreme weather events is on the rise. In a way, it’s the perfect time to pause for a ray of hope in climate change. Please take a few minutes to watch TRUST Massachusetts and Eshe’s story. We guarantee you’ll be moved.
As fate would have it, on the day dozens of Eshe’s peers were set to file their petition for carbon emissions rulemaking with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in Boston, the city shut down schools and government offices due to Hurricane Sandy. While the evidence that allows us to confirm whether or not this particular hurricane was caused by our changing climate won’t be available for years, experts say this is not the question to ask. Dr. Kevin Trenberth, the former head of the Climate Analysis Section at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research explains,
The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.
This warmth and moisture also combines with increased surface ocean temperatures along the coast each playing a role in the intensity of this kind of storm. We may not know for decades all of the factors that precipitated a particular hurricane like Sandy, or what would have happened if we hadn’t heated our planet or caused CO2 levels to exceed 392 ppm (42 ppm above the safe level of 350 ppm). But the experts are clear that the kind of destruction and disruption we are seeing from Sandy will become far more commonplace around the nation with human-induced climate change.
And even though President Obama and Mitt Romney seemed determined to ignore climate change, our state officials aren’t. During a press conference the day following the storm, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo stated, “There has been a series of extreme weather incidents. That is not a political statement. That is a factual statement. Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns I think is denying reality.” Since storms love a lot of moisture, warmer temperatures and funky weather systems from all the changes in our oceans, Sandy is slated be our new norm. We better get used to it or find solutions fast.
Massachusetts is one of the few states that is looking towards solutions. The state has acknowledged the need to reduce carbon emissions and it’s trying. It figured out that with existing technology it could reduce its emissions by 35% from 1990 levels by 2020 (their state statute only requires 10-25% reductions in that same time frame).
But here’s the kicker: the Department of Environmental Protection was supposed to have regulations in place by January 2012 to go into effect by January 2013. They don’t have them. Plus, their annual carbon accounting system is not up to par. It cannot ensure that they are meeting annual reductions on track with their goals. Eshe and over 350 other Massachusetts youth simply want the state to finish the job it started and ensure that the carbon reductions happen on time. So they are petitioning their government for urgent action and strong leadership.
In Eshe’s film, TRUST Massachusetts, she explains why she is also part of the atmospheric trust lawsuit filed against the U.S. government, and why she’s asking Washington D.C. for a national Climate Recovery Plan:
Right now we’re learning about the civil rights movement. We learned about how they used the legal route because the legislature wouldn’t make the change and understand that discriminating against people wasn’t okay anymore. I really saw a parallel with what we’re trying to do now [with ATL]. The legislature doesn’t see why protecting the climate is important. They don’t understand why they need to make the change from thinking that we can use the resources of the Earth however we want, to understanding that they’re limited. So now we’re appealing to the judicial system the same way that civil rights leaders did.
This lack of understanding around climate change didn’t always exist. As early as 1978, Congress established a national climate program to collect more information on climate change. Then in 1987, Congress, recognizing that “man-made pollution – the release of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, methane and other trace gases into the atmosphere – may be producing a long-term and substantial increase in the average temperature on Earth,” passed the Global Climate Protection Act. As part of this Act, Congress directed the EPA to propose a “coordinated national policy on global climate change.” Both the President’s Office of Management and Budget and Congress’s Government Accountability Office also say we need a strategic federal plan to address climate crisis.
So just as Eshe and her peers are asking the state of Massachusetts to finish the job it started, they are asking the U.S. government to look back at three decades of conscious climate inaction. They’re asking the government to reflect on the proof of climate change evidenced by this year’s droughts, heat waves, raging wildfires, and floods—made all the more real by Hurricane Sandy. And they’re asking the government to develop and implement the comprehensive plan that it promised 25 years ago.
Our youth feel a comprehensive plan is critical because they see that our climate system is reacting to unprecedented levels of carbon in the atmosphere by behaving in unprecedented ways. Our youth understand that solving the climate crisis will require extraordinary action on our part. They know that a plan is the logical place to start, and they know that we can do this.
As Eshe observed, “in the civil rights movement, judges had to take a step into the unknown …. [T]he price of not doing so was too high.” When the Supreme Court struck down segregation in our schools, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals followed by issuing a stream of landmark opinions that removed barriers of discrimination in voting, in jury selection, and in employment. We have to do the same. Every single one of us. We have to step into the unknown. We have to take unprecedented action. We have to change our food systems, transportation systems, energy systems, our laws. It’s possible.
Before we reintroduce you to Eshe’s peers, whom you may have met over the last year, we would like to share one lasting lesson Eshe learned from her parents, in her own words.
Once I asked my parents, you know, every parent when they have a child has something they want for them … what do you want from me? And they said, “As long as you end up a good human being, then we’ve done our job.” And I think for them, part of that is acting when you see something is wrong – is being someone who they call an upstander instead of a bystander. And for them, that’s part of being a good person.
If the scientific consensus is right – and all the on-the-ground evidence backs this up – the next four years is our one chance, actually it’s humanity’s one chance, to truly make a difference and be upstanders for future generations.
Today, we ask you to listen to Eshe’s story, and to all the Stories of TRUST with the willingness to help, a willingness to be an upstander in addressing what will likely prove to be the human rights challenge of our time.
And when November 6 rolls around, please vote for climate justice and every other kind of justice. And then, when our politicians are slated and the hard work begins of keeping them on task, we’ll need all of the upstander supporters we can muster.
Meet Eshe’s Peers
Meet Alec Loorz. Alec is an 18-year old climate champion from southern California who has been working to find solutions to the climate crisis since he was 12. Alec inspired youth from around the country to join together with public interest attorneys, top law students, distinguished scholars and top climate scientists to take their case to court.
Meet John Theibes. John is a 24-year old beginning farmer from the Golden Triangle in Montana. John shares that one of the most important moments in his life was when he realized climate change was real. Even more important was the moment he realized he personally had to do something significant about it. And he has. John has set out to change agricultural practices on a worn out patch of prairie in the agricultural heart of Montana.
Meet Nelson Kanuk. Nelson is a 17-year old community leader from Kipnuk, Alaska who shares his story about the problems people living in the Arctic endure. Nelson shares, “The main problem we are facing in the northern reaches of the world is that winter is coming late. This causes increased erosion due to permafrost melt, increased flooding due to the warmer temperatures, and intensified storms because the sea ice forms later in the season and is unable to provide a natural barrier for our coastal communities. This affects our communities as we could lose our homes, our culture and our way of life.”
Meet Jamie Lynn Butler. Jamie Lynn is a 12-year old Navajo artist from northern Arizona who lives under the soaring azure skies of the American Southwest where the intensifying effects of climate change have made drought the new normal. In turn, the oasis-based communities are being driven toward the brink of a Dust-Bowl-scale catastrophe. With Jaime’s world literally drying up around her, she has not only taken her plea to court, she is also taking her story straight to President Obama hoping he will answer the call of our youth.
Meet Glori Dei Fillippone. Glori is a 14-year old from Des Moines, Iowa who is many things. Glori teaches us about connections. When Glori was really little she remembers driving past factories and thinking the smoke was coming from a cloud machine. When her parents explained that the smoke was actually bad for the Earth, Glori started seeing many more connections. Since then, Glori combined her learning about our environment with her fortitude for not giving up. She is now relying on her strength and perseverance as she advocates both at the agency level and in the courtroom to ensure we take care of the one and only sky we have.
Meet Xuihtezcatl Martinez. Xuihtezcatl is a 12-year old environmental activist from Boulder Colorado who can see climate change destroying the places he loves. Xiuthtezcatl shares, “The proof of climate change is everywhere I look. In my lifetime the amount of forest killed by beetles has expanded. The number of acres burned has intensified. My generation is losing our forests. We are losing our homes. It’s not too late to ensure my generation has a livable future. But we need to listen to the science and act now.”
Meet Ashley Funk. Ashley is a 17-year old from western Pennsylvania who is a future engineer and policy maker. The coal industry left Ashley’s hometown with huge mounds of toxic waste in the form of gob piles. The pollutants that run off of the black, massive piles cause the water in the streams behind her house to turn orange in color. Ashley explains, “I always just thought to myself, if this coal ash and all the pollutants are hurting our environment visibly, what are they doing to our atmosphere? We need to do something about it because even though we can’t see it like we can see the orange water, it’s still affecting the health of our communities and the health of our planet.”
Meet Kelsey Juliana. Kelsey is a 16-year old from Eugene, Oregon. She is an artist, a thinker, an enthusiast and fully herself. She has a deep appreciation for the beauty and importance of our natural resources, especially our air and our water. Kelsey takes us on a journey from the crest of Oregon’s lush old growth forests on the crest of the Cascades to the state’s rugged coastline. Along the path, Kelsey shows us how climate change is affecting Oregon – from the change in the water cycle due to warming temperatures, to the increase in forest fires. From the ocean acidification that threatens shellfish, a food source Oregonians love, to the coastal erosion that leads to infrastructure damage and may cause coastal residents to move inland.
Co-author Julia Olson is the Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon School of Law. She has worked for 15 years representing grassroots conservation groups in the West, helping to protect rivers, forests, parks, wilderness, wildlife, organic agriculture and human health.