The past few months have seen a large uptick in young people's political involvement, but for Kelsey Juliana and twenty other young activists, political action has been a part of life for years.
Environmental justice cases are relatively rare in federal courts, and cases brought by young people are even more uncommon. This unique combination of factors make this case a historic one, not only because of what could happen if these young activists win, but due to the unique nature of the young plaintiffs' arguments.
According to plaintiffs, by ignoring climate change, the government violates children's constitutional right to live free from damage caused by previous generations' contributions to climate change, since studies estimate the majority of climate mitigation and impact will fall on the world's youth. Plaintiffs say this violates their constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
The federal courts have never seen a case applying the constitutional right to equal protection under the law to the idea of environmental preservation for future generations. Because of this, Robert Percival, director of environmental law at the University of Boston, says this case could set an important legal precedent about "generational equity," or the idea that the federal government has a responsibility to protect not just today's American citizens, but future citizens as well.
"The plaintiffs are essentially arguing that the federal government has a duty to protect future generations and that they failed to do so because they have not effectively protected [them] against the harm that climate change is going to cause," Percival explained.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration attempted to get the Juliana v. U.S. case dismissed by issuing a "writ of mandamus," a petition requesting the lower court throw out the case on the basis of the higher governing body's authority. In response, the district court filed statements supporting the decision to bring the case to trial and in March, the writ was rejected by the district court, allowing Juliana v. U.S. to continue its path towards federal court.
According to Coreal Riday-White, community engagement manager at Our Children's Trust, the organization coordinating the legal case between the plaintiffs and the federal government, the decision to take the federal government to court came mostly from young people's inability to change climate policy any other way.
"Youth can't vote so they have no say in who the legislators or executives in the country [are], but they are still American citizens," Riday-White explained. "They're guaranteed equal protection under the law just like their adult counterparts."
According to Percival, when the case was filed, the likelihood of it going to trial was very slim. At the time, Barack Obama was president. Due to efforts like the Clean Power Plan, it would have been more difficult for the plaintiffs to prove that climate change was being ignored or trivialized. However, since the 2016 election and Trump's subsequent repeal of environmental policies, Riday-White and others at Our Children's Trust have seen this case gain traction.
"As the [legal] campaign has gone on and on and on, we've seen more and more success at each level," said Riday-White.
Percival believes this could be at least partially a result of the Trump Administration's stance on environmental issues like climate change.
"Now that the Trump Administration is in charge, they'll have a much harder time saying that they are taking climate change seriously," Percival said.
If plaintiffs succeed in winning the case, it could set a precedent for future generational equity cases, becoming what Percival says could be "the trial of the century over climate change."
However, the path to legal victory for the young plaintiffs is not a sure one.
"I think the real difficulty facing the case is that many people believe that it's not the role of a single federal judge to dictate national climate policy," Percival said. "Particularly on an issue that has [such a] global dimension."
Furthermore, even if these young activists win, it will not necessarily guarantee quick and efficient action. According to Riday-White, it would most likely lead to a ruling that mandates the legislative or executive branch to take action, but cannot dictate how.
"The judiciary [branch of government] cannot explicitly tell the other branches of government what to do," Riday-White explained. "What the court can order the other branches of government to do is to cease actions that are violating someone's constitutional rights and then set parameters around what that might look like."
Despite the long road ahead, Percival maintains that Juliana v. U.S. still stands to make a big impact, simply by going to trial.
"[Juliana v. U.S] will emphasize that it's important to have a judiciary that looks out for future generations and that instills in the executive branch a desire to consider the interest of future generations," Percival said.
"Win or lose in this case, [Juliana v. U.S] is just the beginning."