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Meet the teen suing Oregon for ‘resisting the urgency’ of climate change

Nineteen-year-old environmental activist Kelsey Juliana has a message for the state of Oregon: You’re not doing enough to stop climate change.

Now in college, she’s co-plaintiff in a major lawsuit spearheaded by environmental advocacy non-profit Our Children’s Trust that could force the state of Oregon “to take a more aggressive stance against the carbon emissions warming the earth and destroying the environment.”

Our Children’s Trust has backed suits in other states, but none have been successful so far.

An activist since elementary school, Juliana says she’s fighting to protect the environment for the future of her generation. And she’s making sure her voice is being heard.

This Q&A has been edited for space and clarity from an interview with the NewsHour’s Megan Thompson.

PBS NEWSHOUR: How did you get involved in all of this environmental advocacy work? Is this an issue that’s always been important to you?

KELSEY JULIANA: Yes. Environmental activism and social justice work have been basic morals in my family. Fighting for the good fight and protecting things that we care about is something that’s part of my family since birth, I guess you could say.

I’ve been doing climate activism work since 5th grade. That started with me getting my friends, my soccer team together and going to a local park and spending a day marching and holding up signs, asking for action on the climate crisis.

NH: And was there a moment or a reason or something that happened and made you want to pick the fight for the climate change issue, specifically?

KJ: In fourth grade, I fell in love with the panda bear. Then a couple years later, I fell in love with the polar bear, both of which were and still are on the endangered species list. And learning about the polar bear, specifically, in every aspect of their life – from how they grow, from how they search for food – is affected by climate change. And so, that’s kind of one of the ways that I really started caring about this issue.

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Juliana took part in the People’s Climate March, a large-scale event to advocate for global action against climate change, on September 21, 2014 in New York. Photo courtesey of Kelsey Juliana.

NH: Tell me about how you got involved in the lawsuit. 

KJ: Well, I was in eighth grade, about to head off to high school, and I got a call to invite me to be a part of this youth-led movement. They were preparing to file a case in Oregon and they were looking for plaintiffs.

And, you know, I was nervous at first because we’re talking about putting your name on a document that will forever be in a legal system that anyone can access at any time. But it is a testament to how serious this is to have youth ages 14, ages 11, ages, you know, four, to stand in court and say, “This is an issue that I care about. Why aren’t you acting? This is your job. Why aren’t you doing everything you can to ensure that these vital resources, necessary for my survival, are protected?”

And we take it so seriously that we are willing to go through this legal system, to dedicate time to advocate for our Constitutional rights.

NH: Did you know anything about the Public Trust Doctrine when you first got involved?

KJ: I had never heard about the Public Trust Doctrine. But when they explained to me, it was like, “Well, duh.”

The Public Trust just states that the government is a trustee, and they have a legal obligation to protect said resources – bodies of water, wildlife, the atmosphere – to protect them for current and future generations and to not allow them to be exploited upon and polluted and destroyed. It is part of our Constitutional rights.

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Juliana, 14, speaks to a crowd in Eugene, Oregon, after taking part in a march for the International Day of Climate Action. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Juliana.

NH: Some people would say, “You know what? Oregon is actually pretty progressive on these issues.” So, why file a lawsuit here in Oregon? 

KJ: That’s an excellent question. That’s my question. Why file a lawsuit here in Oregon? Why do I have to fly from North Carolina, here to my beloved state to go to court for the third time when we are known to the rest of the states as being progressive, as being environmentally friendly, as being forward thinking?

Even if we were to halt all of our CO2 emissions now, we are still in line to face massive climate change from the amount of CO2 already emitted. For 30 to 40 years down the line. And we’re not slowing down. And that’s terrifying.

So, we have an extreme urgency to act now and the government is sitting idly by. They’re taking measures according to what’s easiest and on their timeline, on their schedule. And that’s not okay.

NH: Have you seen the effects of climate change here in Oregon?

KJ: Yeah. In Oregon we’re really seeing the effects of ocean acidification. Fishermen are going out of business because shellfish are not surviving with this acidification. And so, a decrease in shellfish, a decrease in wildlife. In our tide pools we’re seeing erosion along our coastlines.

We’re seeing less snowpack in our mountains, which in turn means less water runoff for the summer season, which means more droughts. And with warming temperatures, of course, you have an increase of wildfires when that’s not natural at that time and to the severity that we’re seeing.

And of course, we’re also seeing flooding. Because of this less dense snowpack and the warming temperatures, it’s flooding sooner and then it’s dried out for the rest of the year.

Juliana took part in a cross-country march for climate change awareness in 2014. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Juliana.

Juliana took part in a cross-country march for climate change awareness in 2014. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Juliana.

NH: Some of the lawsuits that have been filed in other states have been dismissed. Not necessarily on their merits, because some of the judges say, “You know what? This isn’t a decision for the courts to make. This is a political question that should be left up to governments, elected officials, state legislatures.” What do you say to that argument?

KJ: I would say this issue should be left up to the executive and legislative branches. But they’re not doing their job. They’re not taking it seriously and they’re not acting now.

So, now we have with the beautiful system of checks and balances an order to the courts to see the urgency of this and to take us seriously and to urge the other branches to put forth our demands and to recognize atmosphere as a resource that needs to be protected under the Public Trust Doctrine.

NH: What has this entire experience been like for you? And what have you learned from all this?

KJ: With this experience, it’s challenged me to be an advocate for myself. It’s challenged me to seek support, to welcome support, and demand support from a spectrum of people, intergenerational and to look to scientists, to look to parents, and to look to fellow peers to seek support from them, and advice from them, and encouragement.

It’s been a pretty incredible process. I’ve spoken to at this point probably thousands of people, ages four to 90 and been to schools and film festivals and rallies. It’s a testament to the power of the people.

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