These 21 Kids Are Suing the Federal Government Over Climate Change: 'Everything Is at Stake'

"Adults see climate change as an issue that can be solved in the future, but for young people, it's going to be part of our entire lives," Sophie Kivlehan tells PEOPLE

Photo: Robin Loznak

“The worse climate change gets, the more my generation is going to have to deal with,” 19-year-old Kiran Oommen tells PEOPLE. “And at the same time, we have no say in how it is addressed.”

Oommen is part of a group of 21 kids, teens and young adults who are working to change that by suing the federal government for their right to a stable climate.

The suit alleges that the federal government has known for decades that carbon pollution destabilizes the climate in a way that puts future generations in “significant” danger but has taken no action to curb it. The plaintiffs, aged 9 to 20, argue that this failure to act has endangered their rights to life, liberty, property and vital public trust resources.

“The government has known for 50 years about the effects they were causing by supporting the fossil fuel industry and they’ve known about climate change and have been willing to do nothing about it,” Oommen says.

“I’ve only been able to vote once in my life so I’ve had very little control over what the government has done but the policies they’re implementing are going to affect young people like me more than anyone else,” he continues.

The case, Juliana v. United States, will go to trial in 2017. A ruling in the group’s favor would be a landmark decision on climate change and open a path for a court-mandated, science-based plan to reduce emissions in the U.S.

“We are calling for the United States to prepare a comprehensive national plan that will reduce our emissions based on what scientists say is necessary to actually protect the climate system and protect our oceans,” Julia Olson, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit that helped bring the lawsuit, tells PEOPLE.

In a groundbreaking decision last November, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken denied the government’s motion to dismiss the suit.

Each of the plaintiffs has already begun experiencing the effects of climate change from rising sea levels to extreme weather. Victoria Barrett, 17, of New York City says her family in Honduras is at risk of being displaced by the rising sea level. Nine-year-old Levi of Florida and 13-year-old Jayden of Louisiana were forced from their homes due to floods and hurricanes.

“We’re getting to the point that global warming directly affects every one of us,” says Sophie Kivlehan, 17, of Pennsylvania. “We can take warmer winters for now but in 50 years we’ll be in the same position that polar bears are in now.”

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice and federal defendants filed an answer that admitted that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels cause negative outcomes such a sea level rise and drought and that their own permits and subsidies given to the fossil fuel industries have exacerbated this issue. For other points, the defendants said they lacked sufficient knowledge to admit to or deny the allegations.

“Adults see climate change as an issue that can be solved in the future, but for young people, it’s going to be part of our entire lives,” Kivlehan, whose grandfather, climate scientist James Hansen, has joined the lawsuit, says. “Everything is at stake.”

While many have dismissed the lawsuit as a “longshot” and “hail Mary pass,” the group remains optimistic.

“When President Trump tries to bring in climate denial into the courtroom he won’t succeed because experts have to be qualified by the judge and you cant perjure yourself in a court of law,” Olson says. “Out third branch of government will do its job and stand up for the voiceless.”

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