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Youth lawsuit draws attention to climate crisis

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Image: Joe Brusky/Flickr

Children and teens are at a disadvantage. They can't vote and have little say in many plans and policies that will determine their futures. The political decisions made today will affect their lives profoundly.

Scientists worldwide have warned we only have a decade to get emissions down substantially or face the well-known consequences of rapidly accelerating global heating. The costly effects are already being felt -- from contaminated air and water to increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events to melting permafrost and species extinction.

With no real say in the political process, children and youth are taking to the streets worldwide, demanding that those in power do more to address this very real crisis. The message appears to be getting through. Climate disruption and plans to deal with it became a key issue in the recent Canadian election.

But instead of doing everything possible to ensure these young people have a secure, healthy future, governments here and elsewhere continue to expand fossil fuel infrastructure, arguing -- as they have for decades -- that we can't get off fossil fuels overnight. It's kind of like an addict who really isn't ready to quit.

A group of young people has decided marching isn't enough. The 15 youth, ranging in age from seven to 19, and hailing from Vancouver Island to the Northwest Territories to Nova Scotia, are taking the federal government to court "to protect their charter and public trust rights from climate change harms," claiming the federal government’s failure to take actions consistent with the scientific evidence violates their rights to life, liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and for failing to protect essential public trust resources.

Since climate change disproportionately affects youth, they're also alleging that government’s conduct violates their right to equality under section 15 of the charter. The youth are supported by the David Suzuki Foundation, Pacific Centre for Environmental Law and Litigation, and Our Children's Trust and represented by law firms Arvay Finlay LLP and Tollefson Law Corporation.

They aren't seeking money. Rather, they'll ask for a Federal Court order requiring Canada's government to prepare a plan to redress charter and public trust doctrine violations by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making a sufficient contribution to preventing, mitigating, and redressing dangerous climate change.

As 13-year-old Sáj Starcevich from Saskatchewan says, "The planet is dying. The animals are dying. We will all die if we don’t act. As an Indigenous vegan, I fight for Earth and her inhabitants. The youth have to step up because no one else has. We need you to join us to end this climate crisis."

A gradual transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and energy efficiency and conservation would have been possible had we taken the climate crisis seriously even in the 1980s, when scientists including NASA's James Hansen were sounding the alarm. But, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out, we've now pumped so many greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere that we've locked in many inevitable consequences.

Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for a long time, while gases like methane remain for less time but have a greater effect on rising global temperatures. Everything we pump into the air now will remain for decades, causing the planet to continue heating for years. To prevent runaway impacts, we have to cut emissions immediately and protect and restore forests, wetlands and other natural systems, including oceans, that sequester carbon.

As adults, we've helped create this mess through rampant consumerism and lack of attention to the problems our pollution is causing. We owe it to the children to help clean it up, to push for the kinds of changes the scientific evidence calls for. We can't leave it to the youth, because by the time they grow up, Earth could well have reached the tipping point for climate catastrophe.

Children shouldn't have to march in the streets or take their own governments to court. But in times of crisis -- which this surely is -- people have to do what they can to get the many available and emerging solutions implemented.

Let’s listen to the kids and leave them a brighter future!

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor and writer Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

Image: Joe Brusky/Flickr

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