Young climate activists from Warren and Halifax counties gathered Saturday to address the climate crisis in the United States from their point of view and advocate for their futures. Fittingly, they took their stand in the Afton-Elberon community in front of the permanent marker that commemorates the historic protests here against a toxic landfill forced upon the county by the state, protests that sparked what became known nationally as the environmental justice movement.
The gathering, sponsored by Warren County residents Carla Norwood and her 11-year-old daughter, Juniper Cumming, was one of nearly 100 similar coordinated events and press conferences across the country and world Saturday just days before an appellate court hearing Tuesday in the landmark constitutional youth climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States.
In a news release, the lawsuit was described as “the most important climate case of this generation and the first lawsuit that calls on courts to declare that we have a constitutional right to a stable climate.”
Since 2015, 21 young people from across the country have been suing the federal government for violating their constitutional rights by knowingly contributing to climate change for over five decades. According to information provided on Saturday, for four years the government has been doing everything it can to prevent the case from going to trial, and has had its attempts to delay and dismiss the case rejected at every level of the judiciary. Tuesday’s hearing would decide if the case would proceed to trial and whether or not to cease creation of new federally-funded fossil fuel infrastructure in the United States while the appeal is heard.
With poise atypical for someone her age, Cumming spoke into a video camera as her father, Gabe Cumming, recorded the event’s young speakers.
The younger Cumming spoke of her 11 years of accomplishments: learning to walk, talk, read, write, making friends, learning to live with her younger brothers and making macaroons.
“It’s been good, most of it,” she said. “For the next 11 years, and for the rest of my life, I will be living with consequences we are already experiencing of an atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.”
She said she believed it was possible to take better care of the environment, plants and animals that share this planet, and she was there to raise awareness of the Juliana v. U.S. court case.
“To put it simply, this is the most important climate case of our generation,” she said.
Cumming said that she had signed on to a Friends of the Court brief submitted for the case because she believes that young people have a right to a future and a right to a liveable planet.
Carla Norwood gave background on the lawsuit, which charges that the government is violating the plaintiff’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by knowingly contributing to climate change for over five decades.
“The lawsuit argues that since the 1950s, our government has known that burning fossil fuels would cause climate change, but it has aggressively promoted fossil fuels anyway,” she said.
Norwood said that the plaintiffs are not asking for money. A positive outcome could be for the government to declare that people have a constitutional right to a stable climate and for the government to be required to create and implement a science-based plan to slow down climate change.
Norwood said the lawsuit is important because young people today and in the future will bear the burden of the climate crisis.
“The science of what we need to do is clear,” she said. “I may be lucky enough to die of old age, but I increasingly worry that my children may die of the effects of climate change. … We are hoping that the Juliana case does for the climate crisis what Brown versus Board of Education did for segregation.”
Bill Kearney, an adult resident of the Afton community, said that individually and collectively, all voices can have an impact.
“We are all environmentalists; we either are doing positive things for the environment or we are doing negative things, so our choices have an impact,” he said.
Kearney called climate change an environmental and social issue because, oftentimes, the least able are the most impacted, such as marginalized communities, those who are unable to relocate or adapt.
Afton resident Ellen Denning, a recent graduate of Warren Early College High School, said it was disheartening to be faced with the “doom of the irreparable conditions on the only sustainable planet we have” and the consequences of climate change.
She blamed politicians who claim that climate change is made up and adults of power who “pick and choose facts they want us to believe in.”
“This is the time for change. We will not compromise that our nation can continue to escalate climate change in exchange for small favors,” she said.
Denning said that she worried about the impact of climate change on local farming, the effect of rising sea levels on the coast, increasing use of fossil fuels, and the carbon footprint being too large to sustain life on Earth.
“The voices of the youth are just as important on this matter, considering that the state of the environment will ultimately be consequences that we will have to handle,” she said. “We have the right to speak, to be well represented within our government and to insist change in our nation’s policies.”
Also speaking during the event was Ky’Juan Faison, representing ABC2, a youth advocacy organization from neighboring Halifax County.