The Juliana plaintiffs and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg are in urge U.S. Congressional leaders to take immediate action to address the climate crisis and to urge young people from around the world to join them in Friday's global climate strike. Photo Credit: Robin Loznak

By Karen Savage

The group of young Americans suing the United States government for knowingly exacerbating climate change joined Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg on Wednesday in Washington D.C. to urge Congressional leaders to take immediate action to address the crisis. Thunberg, who has inspired young people worldwide to stand up for climate action, joined the 21 plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States to also urge young people around the world to join Friday’s global climate strike.

“The climate crisis doesn’t exist somewhere in the distant future, the climate crisis isn’t an issue for tomorrow, the climate crisis is the issue of our lifetime” Vic Barret, a 20-year-old plaintiff from White Plains, NY said at a press conference  in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We’re on a first-name basis with the climate crisis—Sandy, Maria, Irma, Dorian—my fellow plaintiffs and I are directly impacted every day,” Barret said, listing off recent storms made worse by climate change. 

Thunberg, 16, spoke to a Congressional committee and was joined by the Juliana plaintiffs and other young climate advocates to rally support for the strike.

The global climate strike is projected to be the largest climate mobilization in history. Several school districts across the United States have announced they will excuse student absences that day, including New York City, the nation’s largest, with 1.1 million students.

Juliana v. United States was originally filed in August 2015 by 21 young plaintiffs from across the country who allege that by encouraging and promoting fossil fuel development, the federal government is contributing to climate change, is violating the public trust doctrine and is denying their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.

They are asking for a science-based program to reduce carbon emissions and protect the climate for future generations. The federal government has tried repeatedly to derail the suit, which is currently awaiting a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on an extraordinary pre-trial appeal granted to the government.

Thunberg appeared before a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and submitted a copy of Global Warming of 1.5 ° C, a report released last year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists,” Thunberg said, as she slid the report across the table. “I want you to unite behind the scientists and then I want you to take real action.”

In the report, the IPCC said that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

The Juliana plaintiffs allege that the federal government is violating their Constitutional rights by ignoring the science and supporting an energy system reliant on fossil fuels.

“When there are branches of government that are actively harming our children and have done so knowingly over the last 50 years by creating an energy system based on fossil fuels, the courts can step in to protect the rights of our children, they can set the standard based on the best available climate science, because in the courts, there is no such thing as climate denial – that’s called perjury,” Andrea Rodgers, a senior staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust who is representing the plaintiffs, said at the press conference.

“The courts can order the executive branch to develop a climate recovery plan based on science,” she said, adding that for decades the government has had the policies and plans needed to address the climate crisis. “They’re sitting on shelves collecting dust – it’s time for us to get those, blow off the dust, and implement them immediately.”

Several members of Congress joined Thunberg and the plaintiffs at the press conference, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who said the fossil fuel industry has fueled the climate crisis with a campaign of lies.

“The polluters behind the climate crisis would like us to believe that there’s no role for the judicial branch of government in the solution,” Whitehouse said.

“Tell the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education that courts can’t deliver a remedy for big social injustice. Tell the plaintiffs in the California lead paint public nuisance case that courts can’t deliver a remedy for people harmed by corporate pollution. Tell the plaintiff in the tobacco case—who by the way was the United States Department of Justice—that courts can’t provide a remedy for campaigns of lies,” Whitehouse said.

“In that campaign of lies, there’s no dirtier lie than that courts have no role,” he said, adding that he is confident the Juliana plaintiffs will expose those lies and force the U.S. government to respect their rights.

“They’re going to enter history in the same way that the Brown v. Board plaintiffs did, that the California lead paint plaintiffs did, and that the Department of Justice did by taking down the tobacco campaign of lies.”

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