Background image of Climate change activists Nelson Kanuk (l), Kelsey Juliana, and John Thiebes. Photo by Sam Beebe

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Teenagers taking climate activism lead

Climate change activists Nelson Kanuk (l), Kelsey Juliana, and John Thiebes.

Today’s young people don’t care about the environment. That’s the claim from a study of two long-term surveys of thousands of U.S. high school seniors and college freshmen published this month. Millennials are the least environmentally conscientious group since the mid-sixties, according to the analysis; they feel a negligible sense of personal responsibility to protect the environment, making them less likely to make lifestyle changes like conserving fuel and turning down the thermostat.

Meet Nelson Kanuk and think again. He’s a bright-eyed 17-year-old high school junior from Kipnuk, Alaska, who has a disarming smile, is a certified apprentice firefighter and is active in student government. Climate change is knocking at his door: In the past two years alone, flooding has eaten away 13 of the 53 feet separating the shoreline from his home on the southeast coast of Alaska. Kanuk, his parents and his five siblings live a subsistence lifestyle, gathering salmon berries in the summer and relying on seal meat year-round. Average annual temperatures in Alaska have been warming at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S.

If coastal erosion continues unabated, Kanuk wonders where his family will live and how they will find the food they depend on when he is an adult. Compelled by his situation, he has become one of eight youth plaintiffs in a court battle versus the State of Alaska, demanding more aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Kanuk is part of a cadre of young people in all 50 states who have brought climate change lawsuits or petitions against their state governments. These cases call on the government to protect the earth’s atmosphere as a “public trust” for future generations. A rarely utilized legal doctrine in U.S. courts, the public trust was cited in cases that have protected shorelines from being sold to private interests and required states to consider wildlife and other environmental values when making water allocation decisions.

If even one of these climate cases wins, it will place unprecedented emission-reduction goals on the particular state. Opponents say the lawsuits are a publicity stunt, but for these kids, non-action is not an option.

The Millennial generation are following a more nuanced trend that appears on closer examination: they’re highly ambivalent and uncertain about the future, and that’s causing them to vote with their feet — engaging in community action and seeking out societal solutions in greater numbers than previous generations.

The majority of the climate plaintiffs became involved in the lawsuit effort through the nationwide youth-driven campaign iMatter, which has organized Earth Day marches on Washington and given young people the tools to organize climate-focused marches in their hometowns around the world.

The nonprofit Our Children’s Trust has provided the legal support and strategy for the suits and coordinated lawyers in each state. But you get the sense after spending a few hours with these kids, as I did recently, that they’re not puppets. They have a grave understanding that their generation must meet enormous, potentially devastating challenges. They’re adorable and blithe on the outside, but fiercely resolute on the inside.

“This is not something I took lightly,” says Montana plaintiff John Thiebes, a 23-year-old wheat farmer, on his choice to join the lawsuit. In Montana, the political climate runs counter to addressing climate change, but Thiebes has witnessed the struggles of wheat farmers around him, whose dependence on fossil fuels and related agricultural inputs has taxed the community’s financial and environmental health. Hearing his parents and neighbors repeat that farming is a losing venture, he has come to believe that only major action will create opportunities for his generation and those to follow.

A recent partnership between iMatter, Our Children’s Trust, and WITNESS, a nonprofit that creates films day-lighting human rights abuses, is bringing Thiebes and other plaintiffs’ individual stories to video.

TRUST Alaska from Our Children’s Trust on Vimeo.

The forecast on the cases remains unclear, but the victory these young activists can already claim is a well-organized, passionate network with a sense of common cause. “Sometimes I feel like we have to be superheroes,” says Oregon plaintiff Kelsey Juliana, a 15-year-old sophomore in Eugene. “But then I realize, we don’t have to be the heroes alone. As soon as I met [Kanuk and Thiebes] I felt closer to them than almost anyone I know.”