An Inconvenient Lawsuit: Teenagers Take Global Warming to the Courts

Olson and other supporters of the suit believe that having kids as plaintiffs makes a particularly visceral appeal to adults to take action. Indeed, many of the adults involved said that their own children and grandchildren had inspired them. "Becoming a grandfather motivated me to speak out," said climate scientist James Hansen, the director of the U.S. NASA Goddard Space Institute and the man who first brought Loorz and Olson together. Hansen, in his free time, is a conscientious objector to U.S. energy policy who has been arrested three times at peaceful protests. 

In support of the children's suit, Hansen has drawn up recommendations as to how the U.S. government can meet the greenhouse-gas reduction goals, through cuts in fossil-fuel-powered electricity and reforestation. "My talents are mainly in the sciences," he said, "but it just became so clear that no one is doing anything to prevent what is becoming scientifically a very clear picture. I didn't want my grandchildren to say that "Opa" (Dutch for "grandpa") knew what was happening but didn't do anything about it."

The tall, lanky Loorz is an especially compelling spokesman for the U.S. children's lawsuit. He became a climate activist at age 12, when, like Olson, spurred to action after watching An Inconvenient Truth -- in his case, twice in one evening. He went on to found an organization called Kids vs. Global Warming, and traveled the world, giving more than 200 speeches at schools and other venues to more than 100,000 people altogether.

The federal suit, which was first filed in California and then relocated to Washington, D.C., was initially coordinated with a dozen similar lawsuits against individual states. Four of those suits have been dismissed, while eight are still active, according to organization spokeswoman Meg Ward. With both the executive and legislative branches having been stymied on any major climate-change progress for more than two decades, the federal lawsuit represents a kind of Hail Mary pass, trusting that courts might bring about a speedier solution.

"The judicial branch is much less influenced by special interests such as the fossil fuel industry," said Hansen, who recalled that U.S. courts have succeeded in breaking such policy logjams in the past, including in the successful cases against tobacco firms and the enforcement of racial integration during the Civil Rights battles.

When it comes to climate change, however, it's unclear how far U.S. judges may be willing to proceed. In 2009, six states, New York City, and several land trusts sued utilities operating fossil fuel-powered electricity plants, in a somewhat similar effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The plaintiffs argued that the emissions' contribution to climate change constituted a "public nuisance," under common law. But last June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked their effort. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the U.S. Clean Air Act passed by Congress didn't allow for what she called a "parallel track" of enabling federal judges to control emissions.

While the adults continue their argument, Loorz says kids his age are much more worried about climate change than many of their parents might imagine. Indeed, one British survey found that children between the ages of 11 and 14 worry more about climate change (74 percent) than about their homework (64 percent). "I used to play a lot of video games, and goof off, and get sent to the office at school," he said. "But once I realized it was my generation that was going to be the first to really be affected by climate change, I made up my mind to do something about it."

It may seem ironic that the hyper-focused Loorz is one of the more than five million youth diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. In this case, however, Loorz contends that it's the grownups who are suffering from disabling distraction. He argues that U.S. politicians are so preoccupied by the lingering economic crisis and this year's presidential campaign that they're ignoring an environmental threat that could ultimately bring about devastating consequences.

"Sometimes I do ask myself, like is there really any chance to solve this problem?" Loorz acknowledged. "I feel a lot of despair sometimes, but when I talk to Dr. Hansen, he says there is still hope, so I have to trust that he knows more than I do about this."

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Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent and the author, most recently, of Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention. She blogs at katherineellison.com.

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