A person can know that the earth is warming, that the glaciers are shrinking and the oceans are souring; a person can know the urgency. But you won’t really feel it until a 13-year-old educates you about the only remedy left. Until a 15-year-old looks you in the eye and tells you at what point, precisely, we’ll know it’s game over for planet earth.
It’s a Friday night in February, and I’m sitting in the basement of the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford at a meeting of the local chapter of Plant for the Planet, the international kids’ organization dedicated to planting trees. Started 10 years ago in Germany—by a nine-year-old—Plant for the Planet has to date planted 14 billion trees, every one of which is now dutifully sucking its share of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
P4tP’s worldwide goal: 1,000-billion trees planted by 2020. But these couple dozen kids, ages eight to 16—they’re not intimidated. After all, they’re committed to “350”—shorthand for the 350-parts-per-million ratio of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere that climate scientists agree is the highest level for sustaining life as we know it—in full view of the fact that last September, earth’s ratio fatefully passed 400. They’re determined to hold out for stricter carbon emissions requirements than even the most environmentally friendly Washington state legislators are pushing; so determined that a subset among their ranks introduced their own competing emissions bill.
Their most ambitious goal? Suing the government. In 2011 a handful of its members, then ages nine to 14, filed suit against the state of Washington for its failure to ensure a habitable environment for their future.
“Last year in history class I brought up the fact that I was suing the government. You know, just in passing—I didn’t want to hijack the train of thought in the classroom,” offered Wren Wagenbach, a soft-voiced 16-year-old dismissed at one’s peril. “Someone was like, ‘Yeah but you’re not gonna win, are you?’ and I was like, ‘Well…we already have. Multiple times.’ ”
Since Wagenbach signed on as a fifth grader, she and her compatriots have persisted through dismissals and setbacks to unprecedented triumphs. The stunner came in November 2015, when King County Superior Court judge Hollis Hill ruled that the state has a duty to preserve and enhance air quality for present and future generations. Her words: “[The youth’s] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to…stem the tide of global warming…before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”
“That was elation,” recalls the kids’ attorney Andrea Rodgers. It didn’t last long: The Department of Ecology came back with a cap-and-trade solution the young plaintiffs rejected as insufficient and based on outdated science. Back to court they went, and this past December, Judge Hill delivered the latest victory upholding the kids’ right to move forward—a ruling weighty with constitutional gravitas. She has since set down procedural hurdles, but the takeaway is clear: No longer narrowly about rules—Washington state’s case now hangs on the momentous question of whether a citizen has a constitutional right to a healthy habitat.
Sometimes the merry band of child activists gets dismissed as pawns of environmentalist adults. Bring that up, and amid interruptions and tangents and affectionate name-calling like the siblings they’ve all but become—they take righteous umbrage. “If I were a pawn of an adult, I’d have ruined the movement by now because I would’ve gotten defiant,” declares the wise-beyond-her-years plaintiff Athena Fain, 13.
Indeed when seen through a constitutional lens, their youth is the point. Sure, it was suitably adorable when a clutch of them plunked on ukuleles to protest in a drenching rain outside the Gates Foundation last winter. (It should be mentioned that not long after, the Gates Foundation divested its holdings from oil giant BP.) But young people are disproportionately affected by habitat degradation because they don’t have money to lobby, they can’t vote—and they’ll bear the worst of the impacts. “Three-fifty parts per million is the only number that will save my generation,” declares Jamie Margolin, an eloquent 15-year-old P4tP activist who thinks nothing of venturing to Olympia on a school day to lecture lawmakers on climate science. “We have the moral high ground.”
All 50 states now have similar legal actions filed by children—supported by the Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust—but Washington’s has proceeded the farthest, its rulings now buoying a federal case out of Oregon and moving toward trial this year. Aji Piper, a 16-going-on-35-year-old who is a plaintiff in both, has grown so adept at the complexities of ours, attorney Rodgers can leave him to explain details for reporters.
If the legal details are complex, however, the plaintiffs see the science as painfully simple. And they wonder just when the burden of protecting a kid’s future shifted from adults to the kids themselves. “Every year it gets exponentially more difficult to achieve our 350 goal,” Wagenbach says. “If we keep putting more carbon into the atmosphere,” she sighs, “it’ll be game over.”