carbon dioxide
climate change
fossil fuels
public trust doctrine
December 12, 2011

Teens Sue Government

A group of California teens are suing over climate concerns.

Steven: He is only a teenager but Alec Loorz is going up against some powerful people in court.

On the lawsuit, you have some pretty big names: Lisa P. Jackson from the EPA, Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior and Robert Gates. Those are some pretty big names in government.

Alec Loorz: It’s awesome, actually. Just to see these five kids’ names versus all the heads of the big departments in the U.S. government. And it’s just so cool to see that. It’s inspiring to see that.

Steven: Along with four other teenagers, Alec is suing the U.S. government. Why? They say officials haven’t done enough to protect the environment.

You’re saying that the environment is deteriorating; the government’s to blame. How has the government failed? What specifically are they at fault for?

Alec: Yeah, the government is at fault for not regulating our use of fossil fuels, for not taking that action that is necessary.

Steven: Action like imposing stricter rules on corporations that burn fossil fuels, like oil and coal companies. He says it is his generation that is forced to live with the effects of climate change. So, they are suing on behalf of all teenagers.

I’ve got to ask, do people take you guys seriously? Do they say, ‘Awww, you’re just a bunch of kids’?

Alec: Some people do just say, ‘Awww, they’re just a bunch of kids. What can they do?’ But also I’ve found that being young, some people take us more seriously.

Steven: They won’t get any money if they win. Instead, they want something they say is worth a lot more.

So, what do Alec and his friends want? Well, they want the government to reduce greenhouse gases caused by things like this — driving — by six percent every year. Six percent every year until there are zero carbon emissions. How? By creating and enforcing laws that will cut CO2, or carbon dioxide.

But can a teenager sue the government for something like climate change? Well, yes and no.

The lawsuit is based on a very old legal theory called the Public Trust Doctrine, which means that those in power, like the government, have an obligation to protect resources that belong to the public, like running water, the seashore, or the air we breathe.

Alec is hoping the same principle will apply in his lawsuit to protect the atmosphere. But some legal experts say winning the lawsuit is not going to be that easy.

Professor Jonathan Zasloff: I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s not a zero percent shot but it would still be a long shot. I wouldn’t bet the farm.

Steven: Environmental law professor Jonathan Zasloff is writing a book on the Public Trust Doctrine. He says although it has been successful in the past, he isn’t sure it would work for this case.

Professor Zasloff: Well, what I think what they’re arguing in this case is that the air, the atmosphere, is subject to the public trust. And if the government has an obligation to protect the atmosphere, that means that the government has to take certain kinds of steps to prevent climate change.

Steven: Ok, then it is the government’s responsibility to manage and take care of the environment?

Professor Zasloff: Well, yes. But we don’t want to push it too far.

Steven: He thinks the court is not likely to force the government to pass new environmental laws, partly because no one knows for sure just what causes climate change. For example, if you were in a car accident and you sue the person who hit you, the judge can rule that that person has to pay the cost of fixing your car. But in the case of climate change, you can’t say that the government is directly responsible for damages caused by a tornado or earthquake.

“The Department of Environmental Protection received your petition.”

Steven: For Alec, the fight against climate change has been an uphill battle. He has already petitioned several states to enforce stricter environmental laws and he has gotten several responses like this one:

“…your petition is not the appropriate vehicle for court because we are already diligently working to mitigate our state’s contributions to greenhouse gases through the Global Warming Solutions Act.”

Alec: So, it’s pretty much saying we’re already doing it, we’re already good.

Steven: But Alec doesn’t let it get him down. Instead, he is reaching out to other young people. Through Facebook, he organized teenagers all over the world to rally for the environment. Last spring, hundreds of teens from Denver to Kathmandu marched in their cities to make one statement; ‘I matter.’

So, what do you think when you log onto your Facebook here and you see I Matter march photos from Munich, Ghana, Portland, Mt. Everest? New marches are popping up everywhere.

Alec: It’s just amazing. It’s just mind blowing to me.

Steven: As for the lawsuit, win or lose, Alec hopes that stepping up to the big names in government will help prove to other teens that they can make a change too.

Alec: The time has come for our generation to stand up and, you know, take matters into our own hands.

Steven: Steven Fabian, Channel One News.


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