Look at one of the first pages in my forthcoming essay collection, Writer In a Life Vest: Essays From the Salish Sea , and you’ll see a dedication: “For Maggie.” That would be Margaret Katherine Graville Bricker. She’ll soon be four, and as I write, I’m visiting her and her parents (my son and his wife) in Chicago. Maggie, and her generation, are a big part of what motivates me to work to save orcas, the Salish Sea, and the planet. My granddaughter can’t yet speak for the earth, but lots of other kids are doing that for her.
In August 2015, twenty-one young people, ages eight to nineteen, filed a lawsuit against the federal government. The lead plaintiff, Kelsey Juliana, was an environmental studies student at the University of Oregon in the case named Juliana v. United States; the youngest, eight-year-old Levi Draheim, was from a barrier island in Florida. Many of the plaintiffs, like Levi, were driven by first-hand experience of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters that threatened them and their families.
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon by the nonprofit law firm, Our Children’s Trust, accused President Obama and the Federal Government of “violating Plaintiffs’ fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by substantially causing or contributing to a dangerous concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.” It demanded the President implement a national plan to significantly reduce atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide by the year 2100.
Something the plaintiffs and their legal team, led by Julia Olson, have experienced since the lawsuit filing is the roller coaster ride of suing the US government: numerous motions by the defendants to dismiss the case, denial of motions to dismiss and the filing of more motions, cancellation of trial dates and setting of new trial dates, petitions for new judges to hear the case, and dozens of “friends of the court” briefs in support of the plaintiffs. In March 2021, Our Children’s Trust asked to amend the plaintiffs’ original complaint. The amendment calls for presentation of evidence in open court about how the nation’s fossil fuel-based energy system is unconstitutional.
Attorneys and the plaintiffs are prepared to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The suit’s lawyers believe Juliana v. United States is similar to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. That case succeeded at presenting evidence that segregated schools were unconstitutional.
I first heard of the youth’s lawsuit from Liz Smith, my successor as the Writer-in-Residence on the Interisland ferry. In her application for the position, Liz listed one of her writing projects—co-producer and archival researcher for a feature documentary film, YOUTH v GOV. Part of her research included reviewing hundreds of hours of archival clips of every president from Carter through Obama in which they called on the nation to leave the world a better place for future generations. Director Christi Cooper and the team also filmed over two hundred hours of original footage, including stories of the plaintiffs.
Even though Juliana v. United States is far from settled, Cooper felt it was time to present the story more widely. “The climate crisis is affecting everyone, everywhere,” Cooper says, “but as we know, those most affected are the vulnerable among us. It’s important for viewers to see this reality at the heart of our democracy, and to also see how youth of all backgrounds are standing up to fight for their rights, and their future.”
Following the film’s world premiere in November 2020 at the DOC NYC Film Festival, the documentary made the rounds of film festivals around the U.S. and started collecting awards—19 at current count. It was selected as the Centerpiece Film for the Big Sky Doc Film Fest in February 2021 and was the opening night film at the DC Environmental Film Festival the following month. At the 2021 Woods Hole Film Festival, YOUTH v GOV received both the Audience Award and was named “Best of the Fest.”
The film also was among over 750 submissions to the Jackson Wild Media Awards (“nature film’s equivalent to the Oscars”) and received the Grand Teton Award. The Cleveland International Film Festival selected it for the Reelwomen Direct Award for Excellence in Directing by a Woman. Closer to home, YOUTH v GOV earned the Audience Choice Award at the Friday Harbor Film Festival. And Maggie would be happy to know that YOUTH v GOV was included in this year’s Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.
Not long after I learned about Juliana v. United States and the YOUTH v GOV film, my husband and I had a Zoom call with Maggie. She showed us how she arranged a row of chairs to help her step up on a table. I won’t be surprised if, by the time she’s a teenager, Maggie also steps up to take on the government.