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Climate, Kids & the Courts

Two years ago at age 13 Kelsey Juliana saw a presentation on climate change featuring NASA scientist James Hansen. On Jan. 23 Juliana and fellow young climate activist Olivia Chernaik, age 11, took their efforts to stop global warming to court. The girls are suing the state of Oregon and Gov. John Kitzhaber for failing to protect their futures against the harmful effects of climate change.

“I can look outside my window and feel the temperature and see that something’s not right,” says Juliana. “It’s science, but it’s not rocket science,” she says. “It’s pretty apparent something’s gone wrong with the world.”

The case evokes the public trust doctrine and the plaintiffs are not asking for money or punitive damages. They are asking the court to declare that Oregon is violating its public trust obligations and for the state to do something about it before its natural resources, such as water, are damaged further. The case, Olivia Chernaik, et al. v. John Kitzhaber, et al, is part of a national and international effort through the iMatter Trust Campaign with lawsuits in states across the nation as well as a federal suit.

Juliana says the case is asking for a plan from the governor for a 6 percent reduction in Oregon’s carbon emissions per year. 

In the Jan. 23 hearing, Lane County Circuit Judge Karsten Rasmussen heard a motion by the state to dismiss the case. Kelsey Juliana’s mother, Catia Juliana, who also attended the hearing, says Rasmussen has said he will not just simply say yes or no on the appeal but will write an opinion, which is expected in the next couple of days. 

“We raised our kids with an awareness of social and ecological issues, but have not pushed any expectations of what she should do about it,” says Catia Juliana. She adds, “I was definitely cautious because she’s a child. We sat down and spelled out all the possibilities and implications, but she was the one that made the decision to sue.”

Carbon emissions “are not healthy for my generation or for future generations,” Kelsey Juliana says. “It takes 100 years for them to go away. If we stop this right now, we will still have this problem for 100 years.”