Levi Draheim, 11, of Florida, says he “basically grew up on the beach,” and that he is worried about the impact of climate change on his home, which is projected to be underwater by the end of the century should sea levels continue to rise at their current projected pace. Levi is one of 21 children and young adults suing the U.S. government over climate change.
On June 4, the young plaintiffs argued in front of a federal appeals court in Portland, Oregon, that they have a constitutional right to a climate capable of sustaining life. The U.S. government, they argue, is violating that right by affirmatively supporting the fossil fuel industry. The case, Juliana v. United States, has the potential to open a new door for people impacted by climate change to encourage the government to act to prevent further damage to the climate.
At Ocean Conservancy, we witness the effects of climate change on our ocean every day, from ocean acidification to disappearing sea ice in the Arctic to the myriad impacts a changing ocean has on food webs and ecosystems.
The ocean has absorbed about 90% of the warming produced by greenhouse gases. And ocean warming has outpaced predictions made by the U.N. five years ago. Increasing ocean temperatures are raising sea levels, threatening marine species, bleaching coral reefs and generating bigger and stronger hurricanes and coastal floods, risking the lives and safety of species, including humans, who live on the coast.
Just like Levi, many of the other young plaintiffs in Juliana have experienced firsthand climate change’s ocean impacts.
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Journey Mani Wanji Itacan Zephier, 19, of Hawai‘i, and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, has already witnessed the disappearance of beaches on the island where he lives and the death of the coral reefs where he used to enjoy swimming and snorkeling. He is also deeply concerned about food and water security on his island as sea levels rise and saltwater intrudes into freshwater sources.
Jayden Foytlin, 13, of Louisiana, woke up one morning and stepped out of bed into water up to her ankles. As she puts it, she “stepped right in the middle of climate change.” The August 2016 floods in Louisiana were a 1,000-year flood event made more likely by climate change. Many of the houses in Jayden’s neighborhood—eighty percent of which are owned by people below the poverty line—were not insured against floods because the owners were told they were not in a floodplain.
These impacts of climate change on our planet’s ocean and coastal communities are a result of human overuse of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. But the Juliana plaintiffs claim the U.S. government ignores the contribution it makes to climate change by leasing public and offshore lands to oil and gas production companies. They are therefore asking the court to enforce a delay on further government fossil-fuel leasing until it forms a plan to ensure their rights to a healthy climate are not violated.
Ocean Conservancy has worked hard since its founding to protect the ocean from threats. Climate change is now the largest threat to the ocean and, if nothing is done, the ocean and the communities and economies that depend on it will continue to suffer. To protect the ocean, our government and governments around the world must reduce reliance on fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and commit to international pledges to stop warming as soon as possible. Juliana may help turn the tide by forcing the government to stop acting in ways that further the impacts of climate change.
In her closing statement, the attorney for the young plaintiffs stated that just as civil rights were the constitutional question of the 60s and 70s, climate rights will be the constitutional question of this era. If the three judges on the panel are convinced of her argument, they may allow the case to continue to trial. A successful trial would be a big step towards preventing irreversible harm to our ocean.
You can learn more about the case and the youth plaintiffs at the website for Our Children’s Trust.