Why North Carolina judge rejects 13-year-old's climate change lawsuit

Hallie Turner petitioned for stricter emissions standards. Our Children's Trust, a climate change non-profit, is helping teens across the country fight their states for lower emissions. 

Noelle Swan/The Christian Science Monitor
A Duke Energy plant, which closed in 2013, sits on the banks of the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina in this March 2014 file photo. The plant was a coal-fired steam station, and left behind two coal ash ponds.

She may have lost her case, but middle-school student Hallie Turner is not done fighting for climate-friendly policies in North Carolina.

On Wednesday, a county judge ruled against her petition for stricter emissions standards in a state reluctant to adopt more stringent limits proposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Previously, North Carolina's Environmental Management Commission had ruled that the petition was incomplete and that state law prohibits North Carolina from creating environmental laws stricter than the federal government's, a decision Hallie challenged with a lawsuit. 

Looking ahead, the undeterred 13-year-old encouraged supporters to join her at a December 17 hearing in Raleigh as she maps a path forward alongside her pro-bono legal team.

"Climate change is too urgent for any of us to sit quietly while the state fails to take significant action," she said, according to the News & Observer's Anne Blythe. 

Since reading "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore at age 9, Hallie has been taking action on environmental issues, from riding her bike instead of asking her parents for a ride to joining the council of her state's iMatter Youth, a national organization for teens fighting climate change.

Last year, she submitted a petition to North Carolina's Environmental Management Commission, proposing that the state cut emissions by 4 percent per year.

The petition, which she compiled with the help of local attorney Gayle Goldsmith Tuch and lawyers from environmental nonprofit Our Children's Trust and Duke University, was rejected by Commissioner Benne Hutson.

Since then, the state Commission has adopted a reduction plan that falls far short of the steps recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency: emissions at the state's Duke Energy power plants will be cut by 0.4 percent, versus the EPA's goal of lowering emissions 12 percent by 2030. 

Hallie and her team had filed a lawsuit against North Carolina, challenging the Commissioner's right to reject the petition. 

On Wednesday, Judge Mike Morgan ruled against the lawsuit. As he said from the bench earlier this month, however, "this court has a great amount of admiration for Hallie Turner and her maturity as a young adult to be involved in a process to try to make a difference in the world." 

In August, the EPA announced the Clean Power Plan, calling to increase emissions reductions in practically every state. But half of them, including North Carolina, have sued the EPA, claiming federal overreach. The state's own plans will reduce emissions by roughly 2 million tons before 2030, compared to the 7 million ordered by the EPA. 

But some challenges to states' less restrictive laws are coming from teens, often supported by Our Children's Fund, and their generation may prove more engaged on environmental issues than supposedly eco-friendly Millennials. 

"Our Children's Trust elevates the voice of youth to secure the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate for the benefit of all present and future generations.... We give young people, those with most at stake in the climate crisis, a voice to favorably impact their futures," says the nonprofit's website

In addition to state-based pushback, 21 teens have sued the federal government, "alleging that approval of fossil fuel development has violated the fundamental right of citizens to be free from government actions that harm life, liberty and property," according to CBS. 

Many researchers anticipated that today's young "Millennials," born roughly between 1980 and the early 2000s, would lead the grassroots charge to fight global warming. But a slew of recent surveys may not deliver decisive proof that today's 20- and 30-somethings are such a green generation, after all. 

According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, a 2010 study showed that Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 were somewhat more likely to believe there was scientific consensus on global warming, and to blame human activity as a cause, but that did not result in more engagement.

Yet Pew surveys in 2014 found that 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believed global warming was caused by humans, compared to 31 percent of those over age 65, and that the youngest set was most likely to support environmental measures such as strict standards on emissions and offshore drilling. 

Whatever today's teens wind up being called – names like the iGeneration, Generation Z, and even the Selfie Generation are all in the running – they may have a considerable impact on energy policy. But will it be greater than that of Millennials?

"I’m going to keep fighting for this issue for as long as it’s relevant, until we don’t have to worry about this," Hallie Turner told Al Jazeera.  

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