The climate crisis could mean the end of life as we know it – much sooner than we think, top scientists say.
As a 20-year-old with his whole life ahead of him, Vic Barrett is doing everything he can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“It is definitely, fundamentally unfair,” says Barrett, a college student from New York state, “and it’s scary because it’s happening so fast.”
Like many others, he’s worried because the planet is heating up at an alarming rate from all the carbon that’s released when fossil fuels such as coal, gas, and oil are burned all day, every day, around the world.
Even scarier? The effects of climate disruption from the overheating atmosphere are happening more frequently than ever. Politicians continue to debate climate change and its causes, but in November 2018 a nearly 1,700- page report released by 13 different federal agencies chronicled the devastating impact it was having – in the form of heat waves, wildfires and hurricanes – describing the damage as “intensifying across the country.”
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Last month 15 major health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, signed a letter, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, explaining how burning fossil fuels and ozone takes a much greater physical toll on children than adults.
Barrett is so concerned about the worsening climate crisis that he’s joined with 20 other young people from around the country in suing the federal government over the situation.
In the landmark case, Juliana vs. United States, 21 youths say the U.S. government has failed to protect them from the effects of climate change by implementing and continuing to implement a fossil fuel-based energy policy, knowing it could one day pose a serious threat to civilization.
By supporting the trillion dollar fossil fuel industry and ignoring warnings about climate change from the national security and scientific communities, the government, they say, has deliberately hurt their future.
“The U.S. Federal government and the people in power have known since the 1960s that climate change was going to be potentially catastrophic and still decided to do nothing about it,” says Barrett.
Working with a team led by Oregon-based attorney Julia Olson, who founded the group Our Children’s Trust, the young plaintiffs, led by Oregon resident Kelsey Juliana, 23, want to force the government to take immediate steps to lower carbon dioxide, methane and ozone emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and, according to overwhelming scientific consensus, result in climate disruption.
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On June 4, both sides attended a critical hearing before a panel of judges in the Ninth Circuit of Appeals in Portland, who are deciding whether or not to grant the government’s request to dismiss the suit, which was filed in 2015.
While many pundits initially assumed the case would be quickly dismissed, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken denied the government’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit in 2016. “The right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” wrote Aiken in her groundbreaking ruling.
Government lawyers have since spent the past two and a half years arguing, in legal filings, that there is no constitutional right to “a stable climate system” – and that allowing a “single district court” in Oregon to dictate the nation’s energy and environmental policy, instead of Congress and federal agencies, is unrealistic. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs maintain that the government won’t take action without court intervention.
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“It’s scary and depressing to think that government officials are really uninterested in making sure we can have lives that are worth existing in decades to come,” says Barrett.
Reversing Climate Change is Possible
As Barrett and the other plaintiffs await the decision, which could take months, they remain hopeful.
With so many viable and profitable options available to help lower emissions, such as carbon emission capturing technology and renewable energy sources, the U.S. and the world have the ability to preserve the future – right now, the group says.
“There’s a lot we can do,” says Barrett.
Nothing is more important than fighting to save the planet, his fellow plaintiff Kiran Oommen, 22, tells PEOPLE, especially since the climate crisis is endangering the food supply and will eventually displace millions of people as the places they live become inhabitable.
Oommen, who is graduating college this year, says, “I’m sure a lot of college students are coming out of school, and are like, ‘OK. I have to find a job and start my career.'”
“I’m not even thinking about any of those, sort of, normal things,” Oommen adds. “I don’t know what the future or the world is going to look like. So we’ve got to work on climate issues first.”
There is no time to waste, he says.
“This is a 911 type of situation,” he says. “We can’t even think about the future until we address the present, and the present is a problem.”
“It’s beyond urgent,” he continues. “We have to try.”
At 11, Levi Draheim of Satellite Beach, Florida, is the youngest plaintiff. The island where he lives has been flooded so many times that he fears rises in the sea level will one day steal it from him forever.
Draheim is fighting for more than just his home.
“Our future on this planet is at stake,” he says.
For more on the youth who are suing the government over climate change, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE.
- With additional reporting by JOHNNY DODD