By Ashton H. Roberts
Our Children’s Trust (OCT); upon first hearing this organization’s name you might think that their sole purpose is to represent children in family court. On the contrary, this nonprofit organization focuses on environmental issues as they relate to young people. OCT is devoted to “elevating the voice of youth to secure the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate for the benefit of all present and future generations.” The legal team at OCT has been working towards this goal since the organization’s founding in 2010.
This past summer, I joined Our Children’s Trust as a law clerk and moved across the country to Eugene. Before arriving, I had no experience in climate change litigation and had only read about the use of the Public Trust Doctrine in this realm. But it became quickly apparent that this organization’s innovative legal strategy has the potential to push environmental litigation and the climate justice movement forward by leaps and bounds.
A week into my time at Our Children’s Trust, on May 24, 2015, Pope Francis used His Encyclical as a vehicle to call for a sweeping transformation of politics, economics, and lifestyles to tackle environmental degradation and climate change. He pleaded for swift global action through a critique of consumerism and wasteful development. The Pope’s 184-page Encyclical highlights the looming crisis posed by climate change and places most of the blame on human activity and fossil fuels. While the world at large was taken aback by the Pope’s brazen conclusions, I was silently celebrating my summer internship choice. The legal team at Our Children’s Trust was already developing a federal climate change case seeking to hold the government accountable for their role in promoting fossil fuel development and continue their ongoing global legal campaign to hold governments accountable for precisely that which the Pope has said is causing our undoing.
In His Encyclical, Pope Francis outlines a three-pronged climate change fix: remove greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, restore ecosystems, and help the people who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change with resources to adapt to our changing climate. The Pope states that climate change has grave implications, noting that it is one of the “principal challenges facing humanity today.” This stark reality is an everyday topic in the Eugene office of Our Children’s Trust. Each and every person working with OCT knows all too well the crisis that we face if climate change does not become the most important issue on the national, and indeed global, stage.
Pope Francis champions the perspective of water as a basic and universal human right, because it is “essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights” critiquing those who despite its scarcity, seek to privatize water turning it into a commodity, freely held at the mercy of the market. His view of our environment as a human right perfectly aligns with OCT’s championed core: the Public Trust Doctrine. This doctrine holds that it is the duty of government to protect the natural resources that are essential for our collective survival and prosperity. Those resources—the rivers, groundwater, the seashore, and the atmosphere—cannot be privatized because they belong to everyone equally, both present and future generations.
Tying future generations to the current climate crisis, Pope Francis wrote, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up...[I]t is no longer enough…to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity.” Our Children’s Trust answers the Pope’s statements daily, on their mission to secure the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate for all present and future generations. Their quest will transform the Pope’s moral call into a legal mandate for sovereign states and nations.
In August, twenty-one young people, with the help of OCT, filed a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit against the federal government, seeking a court order requiring the President to immediately implement a national plan to decrease atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to a safe level: 350 ppm by the year 2100. Our climate crisis will not be remedied overnight, but citizens are standing up for their rights and beginning to take action, and with environmental crusaders like Our Children’s Trust at the helm, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.