Big Story 10

"I'm afraid and angry", says 18-year-old leading climate legal fight

BONN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The 18-year-old granddaughter of a veteran climate scientist is so angry at the environmental legacy that adults are leaving her generation that she is taking the U.S. government to court.

Sophie Kivlehan, with a group of 20 other people aged 10 to 21 years, alleges the government, through its actions that drive climate change, has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.

“I am afraid and I am angry at the problems that greedy and foolish adults have created,” said Kivlehan, speaking on the sidelines of U.N. climate talks.

“Adults, you say you love us, but I challenge you to make your actions reflect your words ... without consideration for profit, instead caring about what is most important - the lives of your children,” said Kivlehan, the granddaughter of longtime U.S. climate scientist James Hansen.

The youth filed their lawsuit, called Juliana v. U.S., in U.S. District Court in Oregon in 2015. They allege the government had known for more than 50 years that the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels was destabilizing the climate.

Kivlehan said the main aim of the case is to tell the government that young people notice that it is not doing its job, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“No civil rights issue in history has ever been solved without the pressure of the public behind it. So the main goal is to show the government that that pressure is there,” she said.

The trial is due to start next February 5, after judges rejected attempts by representatives of the fossil fuel industry and U.S. administration to have the case dismissed.

Kivlehan hopes the court will force the government to develop and carry out a plan to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

But with climate impacts, from worsening hurricanes to droughts, surging around the world, “will it be too late?” she asked.

Around the world, there are a growing number of lawsuits against governments over their failure to act swiftly to curb climate change.

Two environmental groups last year filed a lawsuit accusing Norway of breaching the constitutional right to a healthy, safe environment - and violating its pledges under the Paris climate agreement - by letting energy firms explore for oil and gas in the Arctic Barents Sea.

Friends of the Irish Environment, a network of citizens committed to protecting Ireland’s environment, launched a legal challenge alleging the Irish government has failed to take enough action to avert dangerous climate change.

And about 900 Dutch citizens have filed a case against the Dutch government.

Hansen, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist who has helped raise global awareness of the need to act on climate change, said he hopes more young people will start legal proceedings in their countries too.

Meanwhile, he’s hoping for success in his granddaughter Kivlehan’s case.

“If this trial succeeds it’ll send a powerful message to other nations,” he said.