Young leaders take reins

A Macalester College student became a leader in activism for the planet following a lawsuit.

Allison Kronberg

People too young to vote, have their own insurance or order something from an infomercial are proving they aren’t too young to have a voice in climate change efforts — even legal ones.

Akilah Sanders-Reed, an environmental studies junior at Macalester College, sued New Mexico in 2011 when she was 17 over the state’s obligation to protect air quality. Though she initially lost the case, it has now entered the state’s appeals court where the first ruling could flip.

The case, Sanders-Reed said, is an attempt to demand action from the government to protect the environment for her generation’s future — a growing movement among young people.

“Youth really have the moral authority to demand action on this because our generation is the first that’s going to be significantly impaired by climate change,” she said.

Sanders-Reed’s case was one of 50 legal actions taken by people under 18 in every state in the nation — from a letter to a senator to lawsuits — led by an organization called iMatter with the legal partner Our Children’s Trust. iMatter aims to help kids have a voice about climate change.

Only nine of the young people who took part in the organization’s initiative filed lawsuits. Five of those — including Sanders-Reed’s — remain active, she said. Most have lost.

Even if the ruling isn’t overturned, the case is part of a much bigger youth movement for climate change action, she said.

Sanders-Reed’s case cited the Public Trust Doctrine, a law that says each state’s government has an obligation to protect public trust resources.

If the appeals court overturns the initial ruling, New Mexico would be the first state to classify protection of air quality as a government’s legal duty to the public.

What the law covers varies from state to state, said Alexandra Klass, Public Trust Doctrine expert and University of Minnesota law professor.

A few states, such as California and Hawaii, have used the doctrine to preserve aspects of the environment, Klass said, but most states haven’t.

Some courts have reasoned that state environmental protection agencies are responsible for protecting the environment, she said.

Others say the atmosphere isn’t part of the public trust. And some states simply cite that there is no precedent.

“The Public Trust Doctrine is very valuable when state agencies and state legislatures refuse to act, or don’t act enough,” Klass said. “So that’s why the plaintiffs have brought these suits — to try to speed things along and put an obligation on the state.”

A growing movement

Second-year University Medical School student Simone Childs-Walker said she began organizing environmental efforts in high school after watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary about climate change.

She now works with Fossil Free Minnesota — a student-led effort to divest money in fossil fuels.

“As there’s more organization around environmental and social issues, it’s more energizing to plug into that,” she said. “And it’s both empowering and effective.”

Initially gaining traction in the 1970s and 1980s, environmentalism is a “fluid, non-hierarchical and participatory” movement, according to a 2003 United Nations document that analyzed youth’s role in environmental discussions.

“What youth can do that others simply cannot is to really make it personal and say, ‘Look, this is important. This is our future,’” said Larry Kraft, iMatter’s executive director.

Youth environment mobilizing may be more popular because there is more education in school and because there are movements in place for them to join, Childs-Walker said.

Opponents of the movement sometimes didn’t approve of Sanders-Reed’s activism at such a young age, she said, comparing its techniques to brainwashing.

But the opposition hasn’t stopped Sanders-Reed, who has continued her activism in Minnesota.

“People talk about it being too late, but things can always get worse,” she said. “I have a lot of faith in the youth movement, and I think we will be successful and we will avoid the worst.”