From his home in Alaska, Nathan Baring has watched the winter snow fall as rain and storms off the Bering Sea eat up miles of coastline. The Arctic sea ice isn’t what it once was, and warming temperatures are causing the permafrost to thaw.
Lacking a voice on the contributing causes, Baring has joined 20 other youth from across the country in suing the Trump administration and several federal agencies for violating their right to life and liberty by promoting climate change.
The landmark case, led by Julia Olson, an attorney who founded Our Children’s Trust, is gearing up for trial and climate change – something Trump has dismissed as a hoax – is central to the case.
The fate of the planet, they contend, may be riding on the outcome.
“The U.S. government is an active player in this,” Baring said. “They’re not sitting on the sidelines. We’re not suing for inaction, but rather for the government’s actions in promoting the climate crisis.”
Baring, now 18, joined several other Missoula youth at the Roxy Theater this week to discuss the urgency behind the lawsuit and the frustration American youth feel with the nation’s lack of political leadership on climate change.
Among other things, Baring points to the billions of dollars in federal subsidies that go to support the nation’s fossil fuel industries, along with the leasing of public land, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to companies that directly contribute to climate change.
The case also calls into question recent rollbacks on clean air policies that regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, whether to permit the export of fossil fuels, and whether to authorize terminal projects for the shipment of dirty coal.
By placing profits over the planet’s health, Baring said, the U.S. government continues to play an active role in causing and promoting the climate crisis. That, the plaintiffs in the case contend, violates their due process rights and equal protection under the Fifth Amendment.
“We would argue that since youth are pretty voiceless in government without the right to vote, and without a part in getting elected officials into office, our needs are often ignored,” Baring said. “The government has a responsibility to protect all of its citizens.”
The case was initially viewed as a long shot when it was filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Oregon in 2015. The fossil fuel industry quickly joined the U.S. government in asking the court to dismiss the case.
But in 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin denied both motions to dismiss, as did District Court Judge Ann Aiken. In her opinion, Aiken called it “no ordinary lawsuit.”
“This lawsuit is not about proving that climate change is happening or that human activity is driving it,” Aiken wrote in her opinion. “The questions before the court are whether (the) defendants’ are responsible for some of the harm caused by climate change.”
The judge signed her opinion two days after President Donald Trump was elected. The trial date was set for Feb. 5, though the Trump administration has since succeeded in delaying it. But that hasn’t stopped a groundswell of supporters from dubbing the case “the most important lawsuit on the planet.”
“One of the reasons I got involved in this issue is because the science has been consistent for decades in saying the Arctic is warming nearly twice as fast as the lower 48,” Baring said. “The government continues to go down the same path of climate denial. That’s contrary to the 97 percent of climate scientists who say there’s a problem and it’s human caused.”
Baring, who began playing an activist role at the age of 13 when he took up the issue of wood-smoke pollutants in Alaska, has evolved into something of a expert on the twists and turns of climate change and the debates that swirl around it.
Trump has ordered any reference to “science-based” decisions from certain federal documents and banned employees at the Department of Energy from using the phrases “climate change or “Paris Agreement” in their communications. The U.S. Environment Protection Agency was forced to remove climate change references from its web page.
Baring said research proving that carbon dioxide contributes to the atmospheric warming first emerged in 1904, and in 1977 even Exxon’s scientific research found that carbon dioxide emissions are driving climate change.
But the company spent millions of dollars over several decades to sway politicians and spread climate misinformation. The scandal, now known as “Exxon Knew,” includes leaked corporate documents that highlight a single sentence in which Exxon quipped “doubt is our product.”
“They found their industry was a huge contributor to this problem, and instead of doing the responsible thing and telling our elected officials that it was time to transition, they launched a multi-million dollar smear campaign,” Baring said. “It gets to one of the root causes as to why the public is so confused, even today.”
While the future of the lawsuit against the Trump administration and the U.S. government remains in flux, Baring remains optimistic that public support and awareness remains on the side of addressing climate change.
A number of cities, including Missoula, have adopted resolutions holding true to the Paris Climate Accord, despite Trump’s decision to withdraw from the landmark agreement. More than 300 mayors have also signed a letter pledging to implement the accord, as have the states of California, Washington and New York.
That runs in contrast to Trump’s own statements, which have confused weather with climate change.
“In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record,” Trump tweeted in December. “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming…”
Baring said the president’s lack of action and sincerity on the subject is of grave concern, and it’s not something the younger generation is likely to tolerate as it comes of age to vote. The movement’s followers agree.
“We’re already seeing a grassroots movement building up in the U.S. to address this issue, regardless of what actions the federal government takes,” Baring said. “As the Trump administration continues to put in place more destructive energy policies, he’s doing so against the will of the people.”