New voice for the climate? Washington teens sue over emissions policy

On Tuesday, eight teens asked a Washington court to find the state in contempt for adopting what they argue are insufficient rules for lowering carbon emissions. 

Elaine Thompson/AP
Petitioner Gabe Mandell, center, 14, addresses media members and supporters as he stands with other children asking a court to force state officials to adopt new rules to limit carbon emissions Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Seattle. Eight children are asking a Seattle judge to find Washington state in contempt for failing to adequately protect them and future generations from the harmful effects of climate change, part of a nationwide effort by young people to try to force action on global warming.

A group of young climate activists has asked a judge to find the state of Washington in contempt for what they argue are insufficient emissions rules, part of a nationwide effort from a nonprofit to hold states and the federal government accountable for climate policies in the name of protecting children's futures. 

The eight students, whose ages range from 12 to 16, are calling for the state's Department of Ecology to produce a stricter emissions reductions plan, after the state adopted clean air rules in September. The new standards are too lax, they argue, saying that they constitute a violation of previous court orders. The department, however, says it has complied with King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill's April orders to come up with new rules before the end of 2016. 

"The most concerning thing to me is that our planet will be destroyed and I would have done nothing about it," plaintiff Aji Piper told the Associated Press. "We're bringing this case because we need to have a stronger voice and right now that's through the legal system."

This legal battle has been going on since 2014, when Piper and the seven other young activists first petitioned the court, asking it to force the state of Washington to adopt new carbon emissions limits. In November 2015, Judge Hill dismissed the petition, saying the Department of Ecology was already working to create new rules, as ordered by the governor, but she did affirm the petitioners' argument that the state was obligated to protect resources for future generations.

The Washington case stems from Our Children's Trust, a nonprofit group hoping to hold states and the federal government accountable for green environmental policies. In Oregon, the group helped launch a case against the federal government, arguing the insufficient climate policies have violated younger generations' constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. 

"This is the world I'm going to have to grow up in," plaintiff Gabe Mandell told the Associated Press before the hearing. "Ecology has a mandate to protect our future and they're not doing it. They're not doing their job and they're not doing what the judge ordered."

The students' argument centers around Americans' collective responsibility to mitigate the effects of climate change to protect their future – an approach that may win more listeners. Portraying climate change as a collective challenge, rather than issuing individual blame, increased donations to environmental causes, according to a study from the University of California, San Diego.

"The public understands that individual actions are like a drop in the ocean. If we are asking people to take action as individuals, people recognize the fallacy in this," Edward Maibach, the director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, told the Monitor in May.

A majority of Americans – including 57 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of Democrats – support US involvement in the Paris agreement, a global plan to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by cutting emissions. The percentage of Americans who see climate change as a priority is growing, but it remains a divisive attitude, according to polls conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

"The most important and interesting discovery I've made is Americans don't realize how green Americans are … and there is a good chance politicians in [Washington D.C.] are making the same mistake," Jon Krosnick, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and a professor at Stanford University, told the Monitor in a phone interview on Tuesday. "Therefore one of the most potentially important steps forward for the government would be to get in better touch with reality."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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