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Fossil Fuel Industry Set to Argue for Dismissal of Landmark Climate Change Lawsuit Brought by 21 Youth

By Curtis Morrison

U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin is scheduled to hear oral arguments Wednesday from the U.S. government and the fossil fuel industry on their motions to dismiss a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit.

Three of the 21 youth plaintiffs, (L-R) Nathan, Xiuhtezcatl and Victoria arriving in Eugene, Oregon, Tuesday from Alaska, Colorado and New York. Photo credit: Our Children's Trust

The case has been brought before the court by 21 youth plaintiffs as well as climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, as guardian for future generations as well as his granddaughter and youth plaintiff Sophie. The youth's complaint itself is 95 pages, but boils down to a simple demand that the federal government cease conduct that promotes fossil fuel extraction and consumption, and instead develop and implement an actual science-based climate recovery plan. The complaint argues the youth have a fundamental constitutional right to be free from the government's destruction of their Earth's atmosphere.

The Department of Justice represents the U.S. government (using taxpayer dollars), while Sidley Austin LLP, a law firm with 1,900 lawyers, represents the fossil fuel industry. The latter's motion to intervene was granted by Judge Coffin in January.

In true David and Goliath form, the youth and Dr. Hansen will be represented by legal counsel coordinated and led by the small Oregon non-profit Our Children's Trust. The youth have received additional legal support through an amicus brief on behalf of the Global Catholic Climate Movement, representing 250 Catholic organizations and thousands of individuals, and the Leadership Council of Women Religious, representing more than 40,000 women religious. Additional amicus briefs supporting the youth have been filed by constitutional scholar John E. Davidson, former senior scientist and executive director of the defendant's Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program Dr. Michael MacCracken, and Hansen himself, in his capacity as an climate expert.

But the legal support behind the youth is only the tip of the iceberg. They are also expecting moral support from hundreds of supporters, mostly students, traveling to Eugene, Oregon, for the hearing Wednesday. One group that has been instrumental in organizing the community support has been 350 Eugene, a group founded by environmentalist, author and journalist Bill McKibben.

“Students are both scared about the climate crisis and inspired by seeing other kids—especially plaintiffs they know from school or local clubs—take an action as bold as suing the government," Mary DeMocker, 350 Eugene's co-founder and creative director, said. "They are fascinated and want to march with them at our rallies and hear them speak in court, because they know plaintiffs amplify their own love—for animals, for the earth, for fairness—and their fear that their world is being destroyed by the adult recklessness."

The court's shorthand for the case, Juliana v. United States, refers to the now 19-year-old youth plaintiff listed first in the complaint, Kelsey Juliana. Here's a statement Juliana released on her Facebook wall:

“Our arguments are simple: We demand that the government we elected to represent its people act on the interests of the land and citizens instead of the interests of corporate industry. We, as youth, demand that our constitutional rights to life, liberty and property are upheld by the government and that they act to advert climate catastrophe by reducing carbon emissions and fazing out support of fossil fuels. We are youth fighting for our futures in court, securing fundamental rights for present and future generations. JOIN US! FOSTER THE MOVEMENT! 3/9/2016, 10am, Federal District Courthouse in Eugene, OR!"

In preparation for the expected attendance and interest in the case, the District Court plans to livestream the oral arguments into three overflow courtrooms in the same courthouse, as well as Courtroom 12A in Portland's Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse.

Curtis Morrison is a volunteer law clerk with Our Children's Trust, freelance journalist and Whittier Law School J.D. candidate with environmental law concentration.

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Kevin Vallely

'Rowing the Northwest Passage' Chronicles An Expedition Through the Changing North

By Kevin Vallely

In 2013 four adventurers set out on an 80-day rowboat mission through the Arctic's rapidly melting Northwest Passage. Their journey brought them face to face with the changing seas in a world of climate change. In this excerpt from adventurer Kevin Vallely's new book about the expedition, Rowing the Northwest Passage (Greystone Books), we also see how climate change has affected some of the people the team met along their journey:

An elderly woman walks toward us from the road. Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories, is a sizable town by Arctic standards, with a full-time population of 954, but it's small enough that the bulk of the town likely knows we're here. The woman is smiling when she reaches us.

"I saw you coming in," she says. "Where you guys come from?" "We're from Vancouver," I say, my mouth still half full of food. "We started our trip in Inuvik nine days ago." Her name is Eileen Jacobsen and she's an Elder in town. She and her husband, Billy, run a sightseeing business. "You should come up to the house in the morning and have some coffee," she tells us.

Our night's sleep in the Arctic Joule is fitful; our overindulgence runs through all of us like a thunderstorm. By seven in the morning, even with both hatches open, lighting a match in the cabin would blow us out like dirt from that Siberian crater. The roar of the Jetboil pulls me out. Frank's already up, down jacket on, preparing coffee. "You like a cup?"

It's still too early to drop by Eileen Jacobsen's house, so we walk into town on the dusty main road, our ears assaulted by a cacophony of barking dogs. Dirt is the surface of choice for roads and runways in Arctic communities, as any inflexible surface like concrete would be shredded by the annual freeze–thaw cycle. Most of the town runs the length of a thin finger of land, with the ocean on one side and a protected bay on the other. About halfway down the peninsula, a cluster of wooden crosses rests in a high grass clearing, facing west. We heard about this graveyard in Inuvik. Because of melting permafrost and wave action, it's eroding into the sea, and community members have lined the shore with large rocks to forestall its demise. This entire peninsula will face this threat in the coming years. There's not much land here to hold back a hungry ocean.

We notice an elderly man in a blue winter jacket staring at us a short distance away. He's sitting outside a small wooden house and smiles as we approach. "You guys must be the rowers," he says. "Too windy to be out rowing." His jacket hood is pulled tight over his ball cap and he dons a pair of wraparound shades with yellow lenses that would better suit a racing cyclist than a village Elder. His name is Fred Wolki, and he's lived in Tuk for the last fifty years. "I grew up on my father's boat until they sent me to school in 1944, then I came here."

His father, Jim Wolki, is a well-known fox trapper who transported his pelts from Banks Island to Herschel Island aboard his ship the North Star of Herschel Island. Interestingly, we had the Arctic Joule moored right beside the North Star at the Vancouver Maritime Museum before we left. Built in San Francisco in 1935, the North Star plied the waters of the Beaufort Sea for over thirty years, her presence in Arctic waters playing an important role in bolstering Canadian Arctic sovereignty through the Cold War.

"We're curious if things have changed much here since you were a boy," Frank says.

"Well … it's getting warmer now," Fred says, shaking his head. He gestures out to the water speaking slowly and pausing for long moments between thoughts. "Right up to the 1960s … there was old ice along the coast … The ice barely moved … It was grounded along the coastline." He looks out over the shoreline, moving his arm back and forth. "They started to fade away slowly in the 1960s … icebergs … They were huge, like big islands … They were so high, like the land at the dew Line station … over there." He points to the radar dome of the long decommissioned Distant Early Warning Line station that sits on a rise of land just east of us. "It's been twenty years since we've seen one in Tuk." There's no sentimentality or anger in Fred's voice; he's just telling us his story. "It's getting warmer now … Global warming is starting to take its toll … All the permafrost is starting to melt … Water is starting to eat away our land."

I listen to his words, amazed. There's no agenda here, no vested interest, no job creation or moneymaking—just an elderly man bearing witness to his changing world.

Excerpted from Rowing the Northwest Passage: Adventure, Fear, and Awe in a Rising Sea by Kevin Vallely, published September 2017 by Greystone Books. Condensed and reproduced with permission from the publisher.

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