Student activist sues government over climate change impact
UCC student Jacob Lebel and a group known as Our Children’s Trust are attacking climate change by suing those who have the power to make a difference, but as of now have not.
Our Children’s Trust is a small organization made up mostly of lawyers and climate change experts representing a group of young people suing the U.S. federal government for its failure to address or protect against the adversely changing climate, according to Lebel.
The group has existed for several years, but its lawsuit in Oregon is relatively new. “It’s 21 kids, mostly from Oregon, from eight to 19 years old,” Lebel said. Lebel was contacted to join soon before the lawsuit was filed on Aug 12, 2015. The lawsuit is titled Julianna et. al v. U.S. Federal Government, and the lead attorney in the case is Our Children’s Trust’s Executive Director Julia Olson.
The lawsuit is ingrained in who Lebel is. “I grew up on a small, organic sustainable farm,” Lebel said. “I was homeschooled, doing school on the farm and being outside, taking care of animals and taking walks in the forest. Basically, my whole childhood was spent in nature, and I have such a connection to nature.” This innate connection has allowed Lebel to see, first-hand, the damages wrought by greenhouse gases to the environment.
Lebel’s activism began when a natural gas pipeline was proposed to be constructed a mile away from his family farm. The project would involved a 100 foot clear-cut through Oregon forests, with the 232 pipeline running from Malin to Coos Bay. Eminent domain requests have been considered for those who would not permit the pipeline on their property. This would be the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in Oregon after the scheduled shutdown of the Boardman coal plant.
“My activism started when I realized that most of the landowners that I met were passionately opposed to this project,” Lebel said, “and yet elected officials were doing nothing to prevent a foreign corporation from coming in and further destroying our environment.”
Lebel’s work in opposing the pipeline through hearings and protests got the attention of a Facebook friend who invited him to the Our Children’s Trust case. Lebel joined, seeing it as a stepping-stone for his environmental activism.
“Basically, the main goal of the case is to determine young people’s rights under law to have a safe climate, and a safe world to grow up in for their children,” Lebel said. “We have constitutional rights to a safe climate, and the government has disproportionately affected young people.”
This is not Our Children’s Trust’s first foray into suing governments over climate change inaction. The group is run from Eugene, but is operated internationally. Last year, the group was involved in a lawsuit against the Netherland’s government over the same concerns as Lebel’s case addresses. That lawsuit succeeded and a climate change policy was enacted in the country.
A group in Washington state has also filed a state case concerning young people’s rights to a safe climate. Although no new laws were enacted in Washington, the court did recognize the plaintiffs as having a legal right to a safe climate.
Recognition of their legal right is the first conclusion Lebel’s group is seeking. “Once that ruling is achieved, the hope is that the courts will ask the federal government to implement a plan that brings us to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 2100,” Lebel said. Lebel believes the lowering of greenhouse gases is worth the legal struggle, both for the planet and the next generation of children.
Another important aspect the case has taken up concerns the burgeoning voices of youth. “A lot of young people feel like they have to wait,” Lebel said, “that it’s an adult thing to get involved in society, but that’s changing because of technology and a raising of conscience globally.
“I want to show young people can get involved and to inspire, and I think this case has already done that.” So far, Lebel has already been interviewed by the Portland news station KGW and the News Review over his involvement in the case. The Weather Channel interviewed Lebel over Skype, as well, in an interview that was broadcast nationwide.
Lebel and three other protesters recently went to a conference at the University of Oregon’s Humanities Center, where climate change activist Naomi Klein was the guest speaker. There, Klein praised the group’s lawsuit, calling it “maybe the most important lawsuit on the planet right now.” Klein is the author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” a 2014 novel that argues climate predicaments cannot be met by the world’s current market function of corporate mergers that affect the environment adversely. In the novel Klein says, “Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions . . .”
In spite of all the supporters, the case has earned its detractors, too. Large fuel companies such as Exxon, BP and Shell have filed to intervene on behalf of the federal government.
“The federal government filed to dismiss, [saying] that our grievances were generalized, basically meaning that our concerns were shared by everyone in the U.S.,” Lebel said. “In fact, each of the youth involved has felt the impact of climate change in a deeply personal way. In some cases it affects the integrity of them and their family’s lives and land.”
The case will first be heard at on March 9 in the Federal Court House in Eugene. The process could take months, but Lebel thinks they will know if dismissal is granted by June.
Lebel has fought against genetically modified organisms, oil fracking and the use of fossil fuels. He gave a speech in Salem supporting the Healthy Climate Bill and has protested by fasting with other protesters in Washington, D.C. Environmental activism is ingrained within who Lebel is, and that provides his impetus to see the world changed.
“I’ve always felt the degradation of our environment very deeply,” Lebel said. “I see it as humanity, how we go from childhood to adolescence and then become an adult. We had all this land unexplored, all this clean water and air . . . [but] we’ve gone through that adolescent phase where we’ve used up those resources.
“Now we’re in that adult phase where we need to face the consequences of our choices and learn to be responsible.”
For more information on the case, you can visit ourchildrenstrust.org, where donations can also be given. March 9 at 10 a.m. is their first court date, and they hope to see a large turnout, as it may be a historic day.