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Meet Eugene’s young climate ‘warriors’

September 22, 2018
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File- This Sept. 13, 2016, file photo shows demonstrators carrying a model of Earth past the front of the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Ore., before a hearing in a climate change lawsuit vs. the U.S. government. (Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via AP, File)

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — There’s the punk rocker, the animal lover and the shy performer. A future educator, a taekwondo black belt and an outdoorsman also are part of the group.

All six young people from Eugene are among 21 youth plaintiffs suing the federal government in an unprecedented, constitutional climate change lawsuit that seeks to overhaul the nation’s energy system.

The landmark environmental case is scheduled to go to trial at the U.S. Courthouse in Eugene on Oct. 29.

The youths’ lawsuit, filed in 2015, asserts the government has for decades promoted fossil fuel production while disregarding dangers associated with greenhouse gas emissions that affect the climate. It seeks a court order requiring the government to make a plan that works to drastically reduce those emissions.

The plaintiffs — between the ages of 11 and 22 years old — all say their lives are affected by a changing environment. And they say it makes sense for them to sue because it’s their generation and those in the future who will disproportionately face the impact of climate change.

Some of the youths assert a warming planet already has hampered their ability to learn and recreate in nature, while others say it threatens their customs and livelihoods. Others have experienced stress and loss brought on by natural disasters such as flooding, drought and wildfires. And some have expressed concern about the state of the world when it comes time for them to have children.

“We’re not talking about our parents’ harms,” lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana of Eugene said. “We’re talking about our harms.”

The group is supported by Our Children’s Trust, a Eugene-based nonprofit organization founded by attorney Julia Olson that has taken similar legal actions against governments in all 50 states.

Olson credits Juliana with recruiting many of the youths to join her in suing the federal government. Some of her fellow Eugene plaintiffs signed up after they repeatedly testified in favor of a carbon-reduction climate ordinance passed by the Eugene City Council in 2014. And other young people named in the case who live elsewhere had been involved with environmental groups and Our Children’s Trust-sponsored lawsuits in their home states and communities.

One takeaway from interviews with the six plaintiffs from Eugene is this: There’s plenty that’s normal about these young people. But what may separate them from many of their peers is a commitment — to borrow a term — to thinking globally and acting locally in regard to a societal issue that’s far bigger than themselves.

“This case is for young people (and) future generations who can’t represent themselves in other branches of government,” Juliana said.

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Kelsey Juliana

Kelsey Juliana says “everybody” figures she’ll someday become a lawyer or politician.

But the 22-year-old Eugene resident — who first sued the government over climate change eight years ago — has a different career plan. She wants to teach fifth grade at a public school in her hometown.

“I’ve always looked up to teachers,” Juliana said during an interview in the backyard of her family’s longtime home in south Eugene.

She recalls fifth grade being somewhat difficult for her, and said she would like to guide children through their last year before entering middle school, which she referred to as “big kid world.”

Juliana, who is the oldest and perhaps best-known of the 21 youth plaintiffs in the federal case, said one of her younger cohorts has characterized her as “the cool aunt” of the group. It’s a role she enjoys, and one that comes somewhat naturally to Juliana, who has a younger brother and also baby-sits.

“I have so much faith and hope in young people, and I truly see them as leaders,” she said. “Not ‘future leaders.’ I don’t like that term. Youth aren’t the future. We are the now.”

The child of environmental activists, Juliana attended the Village School in Eugene from kindergarten through eighth grade. Before starting her freshman year at South Eugene High School, she and another Eugene girl were named as plaintiffs in a climate lawsuit against the state of Oregon. That case is now before the Oregon Court of Appeals.

She postponed higher education for a few months in 2014, opting instead to walk across the country as part of the Great March for Climate Action. She then began taking classes at Warren Wilson College, a liberal-arts college in Asheville, North Carolina, which boasts a working farm and a managed forest.

But she’s now back home and studying environmental studies at the University of Oregon. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree, Juliana plans to work toward a teaching credential.

The move back to Oregon made sense in relation to her career plan as well as her climate work. And of course, she is the lead plaintiff in a major federal case scheduled to go to trial in Eugene later this year.

“I realized this is where everything is happening,” Juliana said.

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Sahara Valentine

For a self-described shy person, Sahara Valentine certainly puts herself out in front of people quite a bit.

Involvement in the lawsuit, the 14-year-old says, has helped raise her confidence.

“I’m finding my voice,” Sahara said last month, one day before she performed with a marimba group at the Zimbabwe Music Festival in Monmouth.

She’s also been a member of her school’s track team, a leader at a youth summer camp and spoke about the case — alongside co-plaintiff Avery McRae — to fifth-graders during a trip last year to San Francisco.

And, on request, she’s quick to bust out a ukulele and play a song. During a recent Friday morning at her home, the tune she chose was “Eight Days a Week” by The Beatles.

The music lover also plays guitar and has begun learning the cello — which she says produces a “dignified” sound.

Sahara also attended the Village School, and this month became a South Eugene High School freshman. “I’m nervous because I don’t know what to expect,” she said this summer, echoing the thoughts of countless teens throughout history.

She joined the lawsuit after attending a camp led by Olson and Our Children’s Trust, and she testified along with several of her future co-plaintiffs in favor of the city of Eugene’s so-called climate recovery ordinance, which sets a goal for city operations to be carbon-neutral by 2020.

As for the federal case, Sahara said it’s bugged her to hear people assume that lawyers and parents are pushing the youth plaintiffs to participate.

“Obviously, they’re not,” she said. “This is what we believe in, and we’re choosing to be part of this case.”

Sahara said she’s learned much about the issue of human-caused climate change — including its potential effects on the forests and waters she’s always enjoyed — since agreeing to be a plaintiff. It’s also afforded her an opportunity to meet many people while serving as “an icebreaker” for conversations.

“Sometimes it feels like a lot to carry, because we have so many people cheering us on,” she said. “But it feels really good to know that so many are with us in this.”

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Zealand Bell

A symbol of Eugene environmentalism spreads out just beyond Zealand Bell’s backyard gate.

Zealand, 14, says he’s spent significant time over the years in Madison Meadow, a 2-acre natural area set between homes in the Friendly area neighborhood.

“It’s sort of cool to have a giant field in your back yard where you can just go hang out and play,” he said of the meadow, which neighbors a decade ago raised more than $500,000 to keep from being developed into housing.

Zealand is all about the outdoors, and said that’s what has driven his interest in climate action. “Climate change just makes it harder to do things outside,” he said.

He also sees it as a factor in devastating fires that have become more common across the West in recent years. Zealand’s family spent last winter break in the Santa Rosa, Calif., area, helping his grandmother move into an apartment after her home was destroyed by a wind-driven blaze. “It’s scary,” he said.

Zealand — whose parents are public school teachers in Eugene — attended Camas Ridge Community Elementary and Roosevelt Middle schools. This month, he started classes at South Eugene High School. Now nearing a height of 6 feet, Zealand will be part of South’s rowing club and is considering whether to try out for basketball.

Entering high school “is not a crazy, big deal,” he said. But his summer vacation was exactly that. Zealand and his family returned to Eugene in early August after a monthlong trip to Australia and New Zealand. The latter nation is where his parents honeymooned and came up with the name for their future son. He said New Zealand residents “thought it was pretty funny” whenever they heard his first name.

Upon returning to Oregon, Zealand repacked his bags and attended a weekend retreat at Waldo Lake with other plaintiffs in the federal case. He says it was a rare chance to simply relax with the group — an experience he found to be “way better” than the occasions when they gather for court hearings and other case-related matters.

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Avery McRae

Environmental activism already was old hat to Avery McRae when, at age 10, she agreed to be a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the government.

As a first-grader, Avery threw a fundraising party for the then-endangered snow leopard. She raised about $200, which she donated to the nonprofit Snow Leopard Trust.

She hosted similar events for other species the next two years, raising a little more money each time.

“I’ve always had a soft spot for animals,” Avery, now 13, said while being interviewed in the backyard of her south Eugene home where her family raises chickens and rabbits.

She still thinks often about threatened and endangered species, and said those concerns — along with a worry about the impact of climate change on hers and future generations — are what fueled her desire to join the lawsuit.

“Because I can’t vote, the court is a way to get my voice heard,” she said.

It’s horses — particularly a “super old” equine named Serendipity that resides in a stable where Avery has spent parts of the summer working and learning to ride — that represent her current obsession.

She describes horse riding the way that others might talk about activities such as surfing or rock climbing.

“When you’re on a horse, your focus is entirely on what you’re doing,” Avery said.

The teenager also has spent time this summer at a Mount St. Helens science camp and taking piano lessons. And, while Avery enjoyed a break from homework over the summer, she was excited to see friends as she entered her eighth-grade year at the Village School.

Her classmates and teachers have been supportive of her involvement in the federal case, but she’s not sure school officials will sign off on her hope to attend the trial weekly once it begins.

“That’s kind of a big ask for my school. But it’s really going to be important for the judge to see young people there,” said Avery, the second-youngest plaintiff in the suit.

The amount of support she and the other plaintiffs have received as the case winds through the courts has been a bit overwhelming, she said.

“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘I don’t really deserve this (attention), do I?’” Avery said. “I mean, I really am just a normal 13-year-old.”

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Hazel Van Ummersen

One probably shouldn’t mess with Hazel Van Ummersen.

In May, the South Eugene High School freshman earned her black belt in taekwondo, a Korean martial art that emphasizes kicks and power.

“Breaking boards is really fun,” Hazel, 14, said.

It took nearly seven years for her to achieve the rank of black belt, and Hazel said the training taught her the values of “perseverance and endurance.”

That’s been particularly helpful as she patiently awaits the outcome of a big-time court case filed on her behalf when she was 11.

“I didn’t know it would take this long,” she said. “I thought at first it could be over in a year.”

Hazel has attended Edgewood Elementary and Spencer Butte Middle schools. Her interests include the outdoors, travel and reading, and she may have caught the acting bug after being cast in a production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” put on by the Very Little Theatre in Eugene.

Apparently, she’s already somewhat locally known. She recalled a time when a woman who has been following the federal case asked her to autograph a shirt while shopping at a Market of Choice. “I think it’s good that people recognize us,” Hazel said.

The experience of being a plaintiff in a lawsuit has her thinking about a career plan. “It would be pretty cool to be a lawyer,” she said, mentioning her ever-increasing interest in environmental and social justice work.

But for now, she’s experiencing the normal anxiety and excitement that are so common among teens heading into high school.

Hazel remains one of the younger plaintiffs. But the title of “climate kid” doesn’t exactly suit her. Hazel said she and her co-plaintiffs can more accurately be described as “climate justice warriors” who may have at first understood the threat of climate change but now more thoroughly comprehend its potential effects on their generation. She’s already associated it with an inability to ski or sled in the mountains because of declining snowpack and warmer winters, and the bouts of heat exhaustion she experienced in 2015 during a trip to Washington, D.C.

“As an 11-year-old I didn’t fully understand what it meant to be involved” in the litigation, she said. “I’m definitely a lot more politically aware of what’s going on in our country now.”

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Kiran Oommen

Kiran Oommen says his family supports his music. It’s just that they don’t all want to listen to it.

“My grandma apparently watched the video (of his hardcore punk band) with the sound off,” Oommen, 21, said.

The son of a United Christian Church minister and a school teacher, Oommen — one of the oldest plaintiffs in the federal case — is a punk rocker who organizes community events and concerts, and is heading into his senior year at Seattle University.

He worked full-time this summer for the university’s garden department while living in a co-op house for musicians in the “folk-punk community” that includes one of his bands, Geophagia. He’s also played in hardcore bands.

“It just has an energy and anger that resonated with me” as a teenager, Oommen said of his interest in fast-paced, politically minded punk music. A longtime guitar player, he sings and plays mandolin in Geophasia.

Oommen is a Village School product who graduated in 2015 from Churchill High School. It was during his senior year that he was asked to join the lawsuit after he attended a youth climate-justice camp put on by the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene.

Oommen now serves as a CLDC board member and says he may consider pursuing a law degree while also being “as active as possible in the environmental movement.”

As a teenager, he joined Eugene-based activist group Cascadia Forest Defenders and picked environmentalism as the social movement he wanted to focus on the most. “I think climate change is the biggest issue in the world right now because it really affects everyone,” Oommen said.

He said his college experience in Seattle has been great, particularly because of the city’s active music scene. But he hasn’t been able to spend much time recently in his hometown, which has its own charms.

“It’s a lot harder to access the outdoors up here,” Oommen said in a phone interview. “One thing I love about Eugene is that I can just get on my bike, ride out and look at the stars.”

While it might interfere with school, Oommen plans to be home often once the trial begins.

“Personally, I think it’s a little higher priority than the stuff up here,” he said.

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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