Julia Olson is executive director of Our Children's Trust and works with attorneys, scientists, filmmakers, and youth to secure science-based climate recovery plans to return CO2 levels to 350 ppm, under the Public Trust Doctrine. She is a mother, a lawyer, and a professor.
For my whole life, the federal government has known that climate change, caused by our carbon emissions, would endanger generations of Americans. And for decades, it has abdicated its sovereign duty to the people of this nation to prevent the ensuing harm from this climate crisis.
I was born in 1971 when President Nixon was in office and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were at 326 parts per million (ppm). I was born during an environmental revolution when new laws to protect air, water, wildlife, and our nation’s natural treasures sprung from bi-partisan efforts and were consecrated by the pen of a Republican President. I was born just after the civil rights movement that ignited in the streets and in the courts transformed our nation--three years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. I was born at a time when youth were concerned with other fundamental rights, like access to sustainable resources and environmental justice, led a legislative and Earth Day movement that reconstructed our government’s role over natural resources.
I grew up during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, and as a freshman in college I watched in awe as other young people across the Atlantic Ocean took down the Berlin wall with their hands and their will. That was 1989, the year carbon dioxide levels had just exceeded a safe limit for humanity, jumping to 353 ppm. And I grew up loving nature, exploring the mountains of Colorado. Those mountains recently burned and forced my friends and family to evacuate their homes and later return to neighborhoods black and flattened by a fire that raged amidst 100 + degree temperatures, drought conditions with pine-beetle plagued forests, and carbon dioxide levels of 392 ppm. That was this summer, 2012.
My child was born nearly six years ago, after Hurricane Katrina devastated lives in the South and “An Inconvenient Truth” hit the theaters and left me weeping for the world my son would soon enter. Carbon dioxide levels were at 381 ppm, 11 ppm lower than today. There are moments that define us and chart our course. Birthing and raising children can rock your world and make you want to move mountains, or escape to them, depending on the moment. For me, it inspired action on behalf of all children and generations yet to come. I want to be able to look each of them in the eye and tell them I will use all of my abilities to right the injustice threatening their basic rights to a healthy atmosphere and a stable climate.
These life events shape a person’s soul. These carbon numbers will shape all of our lives in the days and years to come. As many among us have written, the numbers are critical. To have our best chance at avoiding the worst climate catastrophes and to safeguard our oceans, we must aim to return to 350 ppm by 2100. Simply stated, we must do two things: 1) Reduce carbon dioxide emissions (i.e. fossil fuel emissions) by 6% annually beginning in 2013 and 2) Reforest and protect soils like crazy. Here’s the kicker on reducing our emissions—if we wait, even another 8 years until 2020 to get serious, the annual reductions jump to 15% per year, giving us little chance for redemption.
Already, carbon math is shaping the lives of our nation’s children. They have stories to tell, rights to uphold, futures to protect, and passionate dreams of a world transformed. I wish the Presidential candidates could meet my good friend Nelson Kanuk, a 17-year-old, Yup’ik Eskimo from Kipnuk, Alaska. Climate change means his winters are coming later and later and the flooding and storms threaten with greater force. The permafrost is melting causing erosion and soon his family will have to move their home or lose it to the river. His community is at risk of losing the food sources that the tundra, the ice and the oceans provide, not to mention their traditional way of life. A day with Nelson will melt your heart and make you want to fight for that ice.
They should also meet Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 12-year old force of nature, who has already seen too many climate-driven fires in his backyard in just over a decade of living. His beetle-killed, drought-ridden forests in Colorado cannot withstand a natural healthy wildfire. And as many Coloradoans well know, our urban communities cannot withstand the climate change-induced megafires that feed off of heat and drought. Xiuhtezcatl gives up time playing soccer, composing music and hiking in the woods to speak out on climate change, with hope that his voice will make a difference. A boy, taking on the job of a man.
And in Arizona, 11-year old Jaime Lynn Butler knows first hand what it means not to have water. She knows that the springs her grandfather used on the reservation have all dried up. Like many kids, Jaime is an animal lover and worries that without water, the animals too will suffer. So she regularly writes letters to President Obama asking him to protect the places and wildlife she holds dear.
At 18, Ashley Funk is on her way to Wellesley College, leaving behind the coal gob piles that were her backyard in Pennsylvania. She regularly cleans up the trash in her community and speaks out on hydro-fracking and coal-fired power plants because she sees what it does to community health and the health of our atmosphere. Last fall, Ashley traveled by bus to protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline in front of the White House, along with thousands of other young people. A year later, she will cast her first vote in a Presidential election. And she’ll be voting for her future.
These are not my children, but they are our nation’s children. They are the ones our government is meant to protect and defend. Ironically, as in eras past, it is our youth who are standing up to defend our nation. They are taking government to task for its gross violation of the public trust and of its sovereign obligation to the people. In fact, they are asking our third branch of government—the courts—to uphold our government’s duty to present and future generations of Americans to protect that which we need for our health and safety, our well-being and our livelihoods. Without our climate system, ALL our other systems become unstable and disintegrate. Earth’s atmosphere is the ultimate commons, a public trust resource on which we all depend for our very survival.
This spring, a federal judge in Washington D.C. heard arguments in one of these atmospheric trust cases, Alec L. v. Lisa Jackson, and likened the request for a federal plan to reduce national carbon dioxide emissions to asking the government to turn the fossil fuel-burning aircraft carrier around 180 degrees. It’s a close analogy. But in reality, we need to get off that outdated aircraft carrier for good. After all, if you knew the aircraft you were sending your kids on was going to crash and burn, would you put them on it anyway, just for the nice ride?
This fight to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and slow climate change is the fight of a lifetime. Only we don’t have the luxury of a lifetime to get government to do its job. Four decades of inaction are quite enough. From the halls of Congress, to the Supreme Court, to the EPA, our government knows the hard facts of the climate crisis and what must be done to stop it. The fossil fuel industry also knows the facts. According to the polls, most Americans see the dangers and want action. As our head of state, the single most important thing the 57th President-elect must do in 2013, is plan a path to reduce our nation’s emissions by at least 6% per year. Such a plan could boost the job market. Save lives. Restore hope. The world will be watching.
I know a lot of young people who would celebrate the potential for a brighter future, like those before me celebrated the passage of the Civil Rights Act and desegregation, the passage of our nation’s environmental laws, the first Earth Day, and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall.
Join our nation's youth, calling for climate recovery.