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Too young to vote, old enough to matter: Oregon girls sue for climate protection

Posted by Erin Flaherty on Feb 28, 2012
Tags: climate change news

Think your voice can’t be heard? Think again. Two girls in Oregon sued their governor for failing to protect their futures and Oregon’s natural resources from the harmful effects of climate change.

According to 11-year-old Olivia Chernaik and 15-year-old Kelsey Juliana, Governor Kitzhaber and the state of Oregon violated the public trust doctrine. In other words, they broke the law by failing to protect natural resources threatened by climate change.

Tanya Sanerib, the girls’ lawyer, compared violating public trust to allowing someone to capture Oregon’s water supply. The government could never let that happen, and the potential consequences of climate change are no different.

If the girls win, the state will have to prepare a plan to protect natural resources based on the latest science. The goal is to reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million by the middle of the century. According to leading climate scientists, that’s the magic number necessary to avoid reaching climatic “tipping points,” like the melting of ice sheets in the Arctic or the thawing of tundra, after which climate change becomes irreversible.

Chernaik and Juliana are not the only activists among their peers. The Oregon lawsuit is part of the nationwide iMatter Trust Campaign. Our Children’s Trust and iMatter are both youth-focused environmental groups that have teamed up for this cause. Legal experts, climate scientists, and parents support the cause, but young people are the heart of this campaign.

The Oregon plaintiffs recognize that they need to be concerned about their future now. Because they are under 18, their mothers were needed to help represent them in the lawsuit, which is being litigated by the nonprofit law firm the Crag Law Center and a local Eugene firm Hutchinson, Cox, Coons, DuPriest, Orr & Sherlock, P.C.

Olivia Chernaik and Kelsey Juliana aren’t the only youths filing public trust lawsuits. The iMatter Trust Campaign has taken legal action in 49 states.

On January 17th, the Oregon Lane County Circuit Court held argument on the State of Oregon’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The judge has not yet ruled.

Sanerib said she is inspired by the next generation’s activism. “Climate change is about their futures. The next generation is growing up in a world where they wonder things like, are we going to have enough water? I am honored to help these young people demand the right to be heard and to protect their futures.” It will be interesting to see how these questions are answered.

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