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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Teenager Sues Uncle Sam over Climate Inaction

Air Date: Week of

A lawsuit has been filed in all 50 states and at the federal level, alleging that the government is required to protect the atmosphere on the behalf of children - and that they’ve failed to do so. The lead plaintiff in the federal suit is 16 year-old Alec Loorz, the founder of Kids vs. Global Warming. He tells host Bruce Gellerman about why he decided to sue the government.


GELLERMAN: You’ll often hear parents and politicians say the government has to combat climate change to protect our children’s future. Well, now some kids are saying, ‘we’ve heard enough - we’ll see you in court!' Teens have filed lawsuits in all 50 states and federal court to force government officials to walk the talk and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

16 year-old Alec Loorz is leading the legal effort and making a federal case out of the government’s inaction. Loorz is a junior from Ventura, California and founder of iMatter.org. It’s an online movement to mobilize young people across the planet in the cause of climate change.

Loorz is telling kids to take to the streets in iMatter climate marches this summer and stand up for their rights in court.

Alec Loorz has been a climate activist since age 12. He’s now 16 and the lead plaintiff in a climate lawsuit against the federal government.

LOORZ: Young people - you know, my generation - we don't really have any real political rights. You know, we can’t vote, we can’t compete with rich corporate lobbyists. So really, you know, all we can do is trust our government to make good decisions on our behalf. But we’ve found that the government has basically failed us and that they’ve not done a great job protecting the land and the atmosphere that we need to survive.

The legislative branch has kind of failed us and the executive branch - you know, Obama hasn’t been able to push anything through. So really the judicial branch is something that hasn’t really been tried before in terms of climate change. And with a lawsuit, this is basically just kind of giving us teeth, so it’s not just marching in the streets and going, ‘Yay for the Earth!’ and stuff like that. So it actually has a chance to change something - to make a real difference.

An iMatter March in Pakistan.

GELLERMAN: Well, do you have a legal leg to stand on?

LOORZ: Yeah, we’ve been working with these lawyers, this group out of the University of Oregon - they’ve developed this legal theory called ‘atmospheric trust litigation.’ And it basically says that, you know…it uses old commons laws from a really long time ago that are basically about, you know, ‘we need to preserve nature for future generations.’

But they’ve used that theory to kind of sue on behalf of the atmosphere as a whole, and this is kind of like the first time that that’s ever been done. But the government actually does have a legal responsibility to protect the atmosphere for future generations, and they’re not doing that - you know, with all the greenhouse gases and all this stuff that we’re putting out into the atmosphere, it’s just kind of messing up the perfect balance of all of these systems and that’s what leading to climate change and all this stuff.

Children marching in Boulder, CO.

GELLERMAN: Well, there is something called ‘the public trust doctrine,’ which basically, I guess, says that the government is required to protect and preserve our shared resources. And I guess climate would fit into that category.

LOORZ: Yeah, exactly. It uses the public trust doctrine, but kind of in the past, people have used the public trust doctrine to kind of like sue on behalf of one lake somewhere or the air around one area - but this is the first time that it’s been done on behalf of the atmosphere as a whole. That’s really kind of why it’s groundbreaking and really exciting.

GELLERMAN: Well I would imagine that most kids your age do write about climate change in high school assignments and that sort of thing, but you’re really taking it to another level. I mean, you speak to other teens - what do they say?

LOORZ: Every young person I’ve kind of run into - we all have this kind of like inherent, you know, subconscious understanding of what’s going on with our planet. And we’ve got this inherent calling to do something about it. I gave this presentation to a really kind of conservative school in southern California, and they were saying I was bringing political propaganda, and they were like going to picket outside my presentation and all this crazy stuff.

And when I went there, people were yelling out things in the beginning like, ‘Al Gore’s a liar,’ and stuff like that. But by the end, they were all completely silent, and I could just kind of see in their eyes that kind of spark, and I could see that sparkle - they were feeling some kind of passion. There were 750 kids at that presentation total, and afterward, 500 signed up to be part of an action team that day. So that just kind of shows just the power of young people becoming passionate about something, and I’ve seen that wherever I go.

Kids taking part in the International iMatter March in Bangladesh.

GELLERMAN: You know, Alec, I was a child of the 60s, and I guess we felt that we could change the world back then, and maybe in some ways we did. But when I think of climate change, I think maybe my generation failed yours. I mean, do you blame us?

LOORZ: I don’t think it’s right to kind of blame the older generations, because yes, the generations before us have left us with this problem and kind of like put this problem onto our shoulders. But when our great-grandparents’ generation was first developing fossil fuels, they weren’t trying to be evil and mess up the atmosphere - they had no idea that there were any long-term consequences of using fossil fuels.

The point is now we do. And now we do realize that there is something wrong with using these fuels and we realize that they actually do mess up the balance of our planet, and they lead to all these crazy consequences and it’s going to take a revolution. And I think that revolution needs to be led by young people.

Dr. James Hansen and his grandson at an iMatter March in Washington D.C.

You know, not like young people standing up and taking over the world, or saying, you know, ‘Older people suck - it’s the youth who need to change everything.’ But it’s working together across generations to stand up on behalf of the young people and say that climate change is the most urgent issue of our time and we need to transition to a sustainable and just society on behalf of our children.

GELLERMAN: iMatter is the organization that you created - the website that organizes people around climate change, right?

LOORZ: Yeah, actually, when I was 13, I created this organization called Kids vs. Global Warming. And now, my big campaign that I’ve been working on is this international event called the iMatter March. And it’s a march where youth are coming together from all over the world to kind of stand up and make their voices heard.

GELLERMAN: So you’ve been involved in climate action since you were 12 years old - do you miss being a kid?

LOORZ: (Laughs). I mean, I’ve definitely sacrificed a lot to kind of do this work. I’ve kind of slowly, gradually gone from going to regular school to now being completely homeschooled. My social life has basically been obliterated, but honestly, I don’t really miss anything - I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. I really am perfectly happy with, you know, how my life and how this work and everything has turned out. And, you know, if I were to do it again, I wouldn’t do anything different.

Although, it does…I mean, I do sometimes feel like I would really like to just have kind of a normal life and hang out with people and do things - and I’m finding time to kind of be able to do that now. And I think after the march, I might just kind of decide to focus on writing or write a book or something and then just focus on having a teenage life, and maybe even go to a real school next year or whatever. I mean, I’m finding time to do things - I play music a lot, I listen to music a lot…but yeah, it’s definitely been a sacrifice.

GELLERMAN: Can you imagine if you actually won your court case?

LOORZ: (Laughs). That would be so crazy. Oh my god, that would be awesome.

GELLERMAN: Sixteen-year-old Alec Loorz is founder of iMatter.org and lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that charges the U.S. government isn't doing enough about climate change.






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