Youth v. U.S.

Meet five young Oregonians balancing ordinary lives with fighting the Trump Administration for the planet’s future.

Words by Leanne Harloff
Photos by Austin Hicks

For Kelsey Juliana, the planet’s future was more important than any graduation cap.

Less than a month after high school ended, she joined the Great March for Climate Action, a taxing eight-month, 3,000-mile trek across America to raise awareness for the consequences of climate change. “Our mission was to meet the everyday people who are confronting climate change,” Juliana said.

Fueled by their stories, Juliana returned home to Eugene, Oregon wanting to take action, but not by recycling more or taking shorter showers. She decided to tackle the issue of climate change head on — by suing the United States government in Juliana v. U.S.

In the monumental court case, Juliana, alongside 20 Americans aged 9 to 21, are fighting to prove that the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property are being violated because of government inaction in preventing climate change.

Their claim, which names the United States as a defendant, is based partially on the constitutional violation of the public trust doctrine, making it unique from similar lawsuits. The public trust doctrine, in place since the founding of the country, mandates that the government holds essential natural resources “in trust” for present and future generations. Climate change and carbon emissions damage those resources, imperiling the well being of youth.

None of the previous state-level cases have been successful. Juliana hopes to change that.

The lawsuit, filed by Eugene-based organization Our Children’s Trust, which helps youth secure legal action to fight climate change, has had some success already. The defendants previously filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that the plaintiffs’ complaint is not something any court can judge. On Nov. 10, 2015, U.S. Federal Judge Ann Aiken ruled that the case will go to trial. Aiken stated, “at its heart, this lawsuit asks the Court to determine whether defendants have violated plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. That question is squarely within purview of the judiciary.”

This decision sets the stage for a momentous legal battle between the young environmentalists and President Donald Trump. The Trump administration has already repealed some environmental regulations and removed mentions of climate change from the White House website.

The federal defendants have criticized the use of the public trust doctrine in the case, claiming that it’s being used “to employ creative and unprecedented legal theories” to achieve a court order directed at controlling the U.S. executive branch’s decisions concerning fossil fuels. They’ve also stated that the request by the prosecution for over 60 years of government documents regarding climate change would impose a significant burden on the defendants. Flux Magazine reached out to Wyn Hornbuckle, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs. “We have no comment beyond our filings,” he wrote.

Juliana foresees the president commenting soon.

“We already get hate mail and death threats, but when Trump tweets, when it becomes his personal issue,” she said. “We’re now preparing for that.”

While mental preparation is important for the young plaintiffs, time spent preparing for the courtroom takes the front seat. The case is not only using the U.S. Constitution, but also extensive scientific evidence. The case’s credibility has been questioned for having youth plaintiffs, but it may in fact be their youth that causes the world to listen; it is their future being threatened.

The fate of environmental laws in the United States could be in the hands of 21 youth carefully intertwining the fight for a habitable planet with the everyday stresses of school, family and, as a whole, adolescence.

What follows is a glimpse into the lives of these youth, desperately fighting for the survival of their planet.

Kelsey Juliana

Juliana, 21, grew up with environmental activism in her blood.

“I really have to blame my parents,” she said of her passion for climate activism. Her parents met while fighting to save forestland on Kelsey Butte in Oregon. They named their daughter after that special place.

With crystal blue eyes, burgundy-colored hair and an infectious smile, it is easy to see how Juliana’s approachability makes youth want to listen when she explains the case. She exudes kindness and draws you in with her honesty. A silver nose ring clues you in to her spunky personality.

Kelsey Juliana says that the most important part of Juliana v. U.S. is not trying to gain fame or money. It’s about standing up to the government and making change. “It’s us personally taking a stand.”

Each Wednesday a group of children gathers at her home to learn about protecting and appreciating the Earth. When she is not focusing on her degree in environmental education, she is giving presentations in classrooms across Oregon. It’s not always easy to be so involved with the case, and she’s made more than a few personal sacrifices.

“I don’t want to be doing this right now. I want to live out my college dreams of going to the university that I want to and I’m not, because I need to be here and accessible to my community,” Juliana said.

As lead plaintiff in the suit, she spends her afternoons preparing for the case with media trainings, phone conferences and email sessions. She says it is their lawyers, including Julia Olson, the founder of Our Children’s Trust and chief legal counsel for the case, who do the most preparation. The plaintiffs, still learning the legal jargon, are often taught a basic version of the information, but they work hard to understand every proceeding in the courtroom.

Kelsey Juliana interacts with her students in her weekly, Wednesday-evening climate change class for children. The class covers a range of topics from global warming to sustainable farming.

At times it can be overwhelming, but Juliana, a self-proclaimed weekend adventurer, spends her free moments traveling, hiking and dancing to her favorite music. Recently, that’s been a Spotify playlist created by the youth plaintiffs: a compilation of their favorite music, including songs from Frank Ocean, Loreena Mckennitt, Owl City and Tim McGraw.

“The worst thing that could happen is that we all feel this despair and this hopelessness and that drags us down and it just becomes apathy,” Juliana said.

While she tries to remain optimistic, she’s also not a fan of the ‘everything will be okay’ motto. She believes we must feel the painful lows in order to accept that changes must be made. “I don’t want to be that adult saying ‘what will our children say when they look back at history’ because history is being made every single day, and we are in the center of it,” she said.

Juliana fears for her generation’s future, but her personal stakes are high as well. “I worry about climate change because I don’t want the forest where my parents met and named me after, saved and then destroyed.”

Tia Hatton

In high school, Tia Hatton, an avid Nordic skier from Bend, Oregon, began noticing changes on her beloved mountains. Crisp, cold winter mornings were turning into warm, wet spring days much sooner. After connecting low snow levels with climate change, Hatton, now 19, began seeking environmental knowledge.

“Growing up we just didn’t talk about [climate change] because it wasn’t part of the education curriculum,” Hatton said. “It was met with ‘oh the science is unclear.’” She was raised in a conservative, Catholic family, who didn’t come to fully accept the phenomenon until Pope Francis began advocating for environmental change.

Tia Hatton discusses options to handle a problematic class with fellow environmental studies student Alexander Burrows as part of her role as a student advisor for the environmental studies program.

In high school, Hatton attended a talk to get youth involved in a climate ordinance in Bend. It was there that she met Juliana, who soon invited her to join the lawsuit. Her parents were wary at first, but after Juliana sent the science backing the case, Hatton decided to get involved in the solution.

Hatton family’s has since expanded their understanding of the climate, though her grandmother encourages a healthy skepticism. “She was like ‘make sure that you question everything they tell you!’ because she thought that I was being brainwashed,” Hatton said. “I didn’t think so. I was just constantly rolling my eyes.”

Still, she took her grandmother’s advice, learning as much as possible. “It is way more political than I ever thought it was,” she said. “Trump’s administration has access to all of this information about climate change and them trying to delete it just makes our case stronger.” Hatton worries for the children younger than her. “They’re innocent and they know on a very basic level what is right and wrong. They’re not immersed in the politics of it,” she said.

As a student, Hatton balances classes, athletics and responsibilities of the court case, often working with media organizations to publicize the lawsuit. She has been followed by a documentary crew, quoted by CNN and interviewed by a French reporter. For those just coming to terms with the reality of climate change, Hatton hopes her story is relatable.

“It’s okay to go through the stages of having a little bit of anger towards one’s self for not knowing, but you have to face the fact, rip it off like a Band-Aid and say okay, now let’s work towards something better.”

Miko and Isaac Vergun

At three months old, Miko Vergun was adopted from the Marshall Islands, located in the central Pacific Ocean. Now 15, she is concerned with rising sea levels enveloping the islands; Miko’s birthplace is slowly disappearing.

“I’m part of a whole bunch of climate activism because I would like to go back, and if this case doesn’t win I may not be able to,” Miko said. She believes that if enough youth get involved, they will see the benefits of change. “We’re advocating for our rights,” she said. “We’re the ones speaking up for the rest of the planet.”

Mike and Isaac Vergun share a laugh while carrying the plant for the planet banner at Portland’s March for Science.

Her brother, Isaac Vergun, was also adopted as a baby. Born in Chicago, Isaac is now 14 and learning to weave the responsibilities of high school with that of saving a struggling planet, as is Miko. In school, she even participates in the Model United Nations.

The sibling’s parents, Pam and Rob, encourage homework sessions, chores and a constant drive to make the planet better both environmentally and culturally through climate and social activism.

Together they have been involved with several groups, including Plant for the Planet, an organization teaching children and adults about climate justice. Pam, a Plant for the Planet USA Board Member, was the one who originally searched out Our Children’s Trust.

“My mom is very supportive. She helps us get stuff together and plans things out for us and my dad drives us everywhere which is very helpful,” Isaac said.

“Well I drive too,” Pam reminded him playfully.

Siblings Miko and Isaac Vergun stand together at the start of the March for Science in Portland. Thousands of attendees braved theca air and wet weather to come out and stand up for science.

Before court appearances the siblings often rehearse what they will say that day on the two-hour car ride to the Eugene federal courthouse.

One of the biggest struggles for Miko and Isaac is balancing climate activism with being a normal teenager. They play sports, socialize with friends and have active roles in their Jewish faith and community.

“The climate change work is very important, but it’s also time consuming,” Isaac said. Both Miko and Isaac expressed gratitude for having each other to work through all of the time commitments together. One thing is for sure: the Verguns are constantly on the move.

Jacob Lebel

Fighting for a sustainable future literally hits home for Jacob Lebel, 20. His family’s 300-acre self-sustaining farm is located outside of Roseburg, Oregon. The farm is a front line for the effects of climate change, including drought and wildfire. For Lebel, joining the lawsuit has been a chance to protect the land he cherishes.

Lebel works to cut back the remains of last season’s grapevines to make room for new growth this year.

His days begin at 7:30 a.m. Breakfast is a smattering of items from the farm’s animals and gardens, including a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Part of his morning is devoted to activism. He replies to climate-related emails, organizes his calendar and prepares for events.

Currently taking two years off from college, Lebel spends his afternoons learning sustainable construction methods from his father. His parents moved from Quebec, Canada when Lebel was four years old to start the organic, self-sustaining farm. “It’s kind of hard to start that in Canada when it’s snowing all winter,” he said.

For Lebel’s parents, starting the farm meant instilling an appreciation of the environment in their children. “Those values and morals have a lot to do with how do we as a growing population of human beings, exist and live on the earth and continue the evolution of our civilization in a way that doesn’t self-destruct,” said Lebel.

Those values were tested in 2015 when plans emerged to build the controversial Jordan Cove Pipeline across Oregon, which would have come within a mile of Lebel’s farm. His family worried about the consequences of the pipeline.

They saw victory in 2016 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected the proposal. Lebel rejoiced in protecting his childhood home, but he realized the farm faced bigger dangers with the Earth’s rapidly changing climate and sought involvement with Juliana v. U.S. He was the last plaintiff to join, just two weeks before the lawsuit was filed.

Jacob Lebel visits with one of his family’s six Highland cattle, giving its side a rub while it eats an evening meal.

Now, Lebel travels to give presentations related to the upcoming trial and teaches others that climate change is not a far off danger; it is a threat that will hit home for every family farm in Oregon, the United States and the world. He dreads what climate change may bring.

“If we had a wildfire here, it would wipe out all of the 16 years of work on structures, orchards, gardens, greenhouses, everything. That would be really, really huge,” he said.

Lebel never expected he’d get involved with such a lawsuit; protecting his future is both a blessing and a burden. But the fight is far from over. Supporters of the Jordan Cove Pipeline recently declared that they will try again to get approval.

“We need as human beings to go out and experience nature, to have these places untouched,” Lebel said. “That’s part of the concept when the farm was created.”

The young plaintiffs now anxiously await the next phase of the case. They are connected, not because they share a side of a courtroom, but because they share a passion to protect their planet. Each is burdened with protecting their generation’s future. They believe that climate change can no longer be ignored and are ready to take action, though the fear of failure looms like a pollution-filled storm cloud.

“Obviously I’m going to be really, really disappointed,” Miko said of the possibility of failure. “But I can still do things that can help.”

“Personally, I might try to get into law, become a politician,” said Hatton. “We need someone who is going to stand up to the system.”

Unfortunately, with the urgency to create change comes just as much pushback to maintain the current systems. But Juliana’s empathy remains untouched. “When people give us death threats it’s like, wow, they really just don’t understand why we’re doing this,” said Juliana. “We’re worried about literally our chance at survival. Death threats are intimidating, but also, for me, it makes me almost more compassionate to them.”

The young plaintiffs draw on each other for support, despite the distance separating them. They email, listen to their joint playlists and whenever they are together, rejoice in each other’s company.

“We all have a very deep emotional connection going through this lawsuit,” Hatton said. “It’s very, very inspiring being around the other plaintiffs. They’re just fantastic people who are super involved in trying to make the world a better place.”