The youth climate movement plans more marches to demand government actionA youth-led climate movement hopes to build on the marches last year, demanding courts force the government to protect its future. Photo credit: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
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By Dana Drugmand

As students stage school walkouts in Europe to demand action on climate change—including more than 10,000 joining one strike in Great Britain last Friday—thousands of kids in the U.S. have signed a petition to support the 21 young people suing the federal government over climate change.

In the four days since the campaign “Join Juliana” was launched, more than 6,000 young people signed on to back the plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit Juliana v. United States. The effort was spearheaded by the youth climate justice organization Zero Hour, which plans to file a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to allow the case to proceed. PowerShift, a network of social and environmental justice organizations and the parent organization of Zero Hour, said it will file the Young People’s Brief on March 1.

“Our Children’s Trust was looking for a truly youth-led nonprofit that aligns with everything the lawsuit is fighting for, and they saw that in Zero Hour, which is why they reached out to us,” said Jamie Margolin the 17-year-old founder and executive director of Zero Hour. “We were happy to help.” Margolin is also one of the young  plaintiffs in a state-level climate lawsuit, Aji P. v. State of Washington.   

The Young People’s Brief argues that the government is harming young people by exacerbating climate change and that the courts have a duty to act as a check on the executive branch in protecting their rights. The brief asserts that the right to a safe climate is protected by the Constitution and the public trust doctrine, a long-respected legal doctrine that says governments are legally bound to protect natural resources for future generations.

“Government actions today, including its acts of authorizing greenhouse gas pollution and fossil fuel development, imperil our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property,” the brief says. “Failure to enforce our legal rights under the [public] trust means our generation would ‘stand to inherit nothing but parched earth incapable of sustaining life.’” The amici say a trial is necessary in order for the court to “fulfill its duty of interpreting the law and assessing the proof.”

The case had been scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court last October, but a series of appeals by the government halted it before it began. The Supreme Court issued a temporary stay and the Ninth Circuit eventually agreed to hear a rare interlocutory appeal. The government filed its brief on February 1 arguing that the case should not proceed to trial and the young plaintiffs’ response is due this week.

The court has scheduled oral arguments in the appeal for June 3-7 in Portland, Ore. Plaintiffs recently filed a motion seeking to halt new government leasing and permitting of fossil fuels in order to prevent ongoing, irreparable harm during the appeal process.

In the spirit of the school strikes across Europe and Australia—inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg—a  U.S. youth climate strike is planned for March 15.

Margolin, who led a youth climate march in Washington, D.C., last summer, said an all-hands-on-deck approach is necessary to address climate change.

“It’s important to push through climate justice in the courts because we are at such a point of urgency that we need to attack this issue at all angles,” she said. “This is zero hour to act on climate so we need to be exhausting every option we have: the streets, the courts, the legislature, direct action, everything.”

Margolin said she is aiming for 10,000 signatures by the March 1 deadline.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to show the world that it is not just a few plaintiffs taking action,” she said. “This is the lawsuit of our entire generation.”