How suing the US government can empower the climate movement

A Q+A about the historical significance of the Juliana v. United States case and the challenges of climate activism in Alaska. 

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: CNN

In 2015, 21 young Americans, more than half of whom are Black, Indigenous and people of color, began the process of suing the U.S. government. The constitutional climate lawsuit, known as Juliana v. United States, asserts that by creating a national energy system that causes climate change, the executive branch has “violated the youngest generation’s rights to life, liberty and property as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” 

In the eight years since the case was filed — spanning the presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden — the U.S. Department of Justice has issued numerous motions to delay the case or have it outright dismissed. Our Children’s Trust, the public interest law firm representing the young plaintiffs, has described these efforts by the Department of Justice as “incessant and unprecedented.” But as another youth-led climate lawsuit awaits a ruling, the young people of Juliana v. United States are beginning to prepare for trial. 

I recently spoke with 23-year-old Nathan Baring, a third generation Alaskan and one of the Juliana v. United States plaintiffs. From his home in Fairbanks, Baring discussed the historical significance of the case and the challenges of climate activism in Alaska. 

How did you get involved in the climate movement?

At about 12 years old, I wrote my first letter to the editor, which at the time didn’t have anything to do with climate change. It was related to PM 2.5 and wood smoke pollution, which is dangerous for young, developing lungs. Fairbanks sometimes has worse air quality in the winter than Beijing and, because of the poor air quality, my parents threatened to take me out of soccer. As a 12 year old, that mattered a lot to me. So that was my first moment of getting involved in civics. 

I then started going to science talks at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which is one of the world’s premier Arctic research universities. I began learning all about how Alaska was dramatically changing because of climate change and how — what they referred to as “the new normal” — was basically going to erase any semblance of the Arctic that would have been recognizable to someone more than 100 years ago. It was then that I got involved in the statewide climate movement at a local level, then at the state capitol in Juneau, lobbying on state specific policies like sustainable fisheries. When I was 15, Our Children’s Trust reached out to Alaska Youth for Environmental Action about the Juliana v. United States case, and that was when I chose to sue the government along with everyone else.

As you mentioned, you joined the climate movement through activism and lobbying at a local and state level. What made you decide to get involved in climate action at a federal level through Juliana v. United States?

As someone who is very legally nerdy but doesn’t love the idea of suing people, I justified joining the case for two reasons. As a 15 year old, I had done every type of civic activism that one can do at that age when they don’t have the right to vote, and it always felt like none of us were taken particularly seriously. But the policy decisions on climate and energy were not reflective of the next generation and the fact that we would be inheriting a planet past the brink. So I think we deserved to have our voices heard even if we couldn’t vote and the legal system serves as a necessary constitutional bulwark when that voting system is unavailable or fails.

What’s been really important going forward is that there’s never been a federal court in U.S. history that has ruled on what the constitution requires the government to do about climate change or, in this case, not do: promoting, permitting, leasing and subsidizing a fuel system that we know is destabilizing the climate. 

In both the United States and abroad, the youth climate movement has been a potent driver of climate activism through protest, lobbying and now legal action. How do you see the Juliana v. United States case not only adding to the momentum of the movement but also empowering it?

One of the most powerful illustrations that I’ve ever heard — and which ties into our case in terms of what the arc of civil rights looks like in a movement — is the story of Brown v. Board of Education. I didn’t know until very recently that that particular legal movement started decades before the famous 1954 decision, when a group of children laid the groundwork for the case. I think that’s particularly relevant to us because not only do we continue the work of movements that came before us and allowed us to seize the moment to bring this case to court, but since the case has been filed, there have been dozens of cases filed all over the world that cite us directly.

So I think the way we fit into the climate movement is very similar to how the legal strategy of Brown v. Board of Education fit into the civil rights movement. We are one of the many legal challenges, but we do it alongside people who are in the streets, people who make art, people who teach, people who are elected to government. This is sort of our lane right now and, really, it takes every lane. 

Nathan Baring has confronted the challenges of climate justice work in Alaska, where many are dependent on the oil industry.

As a third generation Alaskan and the only Alaska-based plaintiff in the case, you’ve also been involved in different ways in the Alaskan climate movement at a state and local level. Given both your personal and activist experiences, can you describe some of the state’s unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to both climate change and climate activism?

I’m one of only two plaintiffs from a “red” leaning state and, certainly, from the most energy dominated state. So climate justice work, in the way that it’s conceived of in other places, is definitely not what it looks like in Alaska. I think a large part of that is just the absolute dominance of the oil industry. It has an oversized role in our economy and everyone’s job is connected to oil. People up here don’t really think in terms of climate change, or parts per million or carbon emissions. They’re thinking in terms of what is going to be here when we move away from this energy system. And right now, Alaska doesn’t really have anything. Even some of my best friends work in the oil industry, and some don’t believe in climate change. But I can see through their disbelief and instead see it as fear of losing everything. So labor justice and labor transition is huge.  

Then, from a personal perspective, in Alaska there’s really no way to conceive of climate justice without Indigenous sovereignty. Indigenous peoples in Alaska, who are about half the total tribes in the United States, stewarded the land, wildlife and ecosystems for 10,000 years before we stepped foot into this area. So that way of thinking is going to be vital to protecting the Arctic or, at least what’s left of the Arctic in the future. 

You’ve mentioned some really powerful cases like Brown v. Board of Education that sort of set a precedent for legal action complementing other forms of activism. Now, as you begin to prepare for trial, what are your hopes for the case and the legacy — irrespective of the outcome — that it might leave?

It would be a very powerful statement for a court to declare that the government’s actions are unconstitutional and that they need to change course. When a court declares something, like it will in the Juliana case, that declaration of law — is the law. This law, then, [which ideally] will declare a constitutional right to a stable climate, will become the basis of a movement as other legal movements are likely to follow. We aren’t going it alone. We have never gone it alone. 

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