Meet One of the Teens Suing the Federal Government Over Global Warming

"For someone my age, climate change is a reality. It's a reality that's already having an impact on my life."

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Nov 10 2015, 8:00pm

Photo courtesy of Victoria Barrett

On Monday, the World Meteorological Organization released yet more bad news for the planet: The amount of carbon in the atmosphere has surpassed the symbolic milestone of 400 parts per million. It's just another sign that the Earth's climate is changing, with no end in sight, at least judging from the pessimism surrounding the upcoming Paris climate summit.

It's easy to feel hopeless, especially if you're young—you don't have any power to change the world's energy policies, yet you'll be screwed when the current crop of leaders die off and leave you with an increasingly uninhabitable planet. How are the kids supposed to fight back? The Portland-based activist organization Our Children's Trust has one answer: They should sue the government.

The group has been putting together lawsuits and petitions against multiple US governmental bodies, the Associated Press reported earlier this month; a lawsuit against the feds was filed in August and claims "that approval of fossil fuel development has violated the fundamental right of citizens to be free from government actions that harm life, liberty and property," according to the AP. A representative from Our Children's Trust told VICE their plaintiffs are all between eight and 19, making them uniquely positioned to have their lives negatively affected by actions that lead to a hotter planet.

It might seem like a quixotic battle, but with Congress gridlocked and seemingly unable or unwilling to pass legislation related to climate change, working the courts might not be a bad option, even if the Supreme Court hasn't been too friendly to environmentalist causes lately.

One of the young plaintiffs in the federal case is Victoria Barrett, a 16-year-old from White Plains, New York, who attends high school in Manhattan. VICE recently caught up with her to find out what makes her feel so strongly about this cause, and what she hopes will happen if she wins.

VICE: What got you into this cause?
Victoria Barrett: My grandparents live [in Honduras]. They live really close to the beach, and in developing communities like ours—and developing countries—no one is really aware of how much climate change is a factor in the beaches getting closer to the houses. They've been building walls out of sand. My grandma's property has been flooded into a little bit because of rising sea levels. Rivers overflow more.

Have you been there and seen it?
Last time I went down there was this new addition—a rock wall. And I was like, "Whoa what's this?" My mom who grew up there said the sea has gotten so much closer to the houses than it was when she was growing up.

What do you want to do when you're older?
I definitely want to do something in international relations—be in the foreign service or something like that, and have something to do with building policy. I have a feeling that when I'm older, considering the rapid rate at which climate change is affecting everyone, it's going to be a huge part of what I'm doing and what I want to do.

Where do you want to be?
I want to continue living in New York City, in Manhattan, which is an island. And as sea levels are starting to rise, and natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy are starting to happen closer to home, I'm definitely starting to see how it can affect my future, personally.

What would you say to someone like Donald Trump who wants to be president, but doesn't believe in global warming?
I would probably say to you that I understand your experience—being a person living on Earth for a while, maybe you don't see climate change as a reality, but for someone my age, climate change is a reality. It's a reality that's already having an impact on my life. If they really care about, not just the current happenings in our country, but posterity, they would do something.

"Because the fact of the matter is: Where we are now, we don't need individual change. We need policy change."

How'd you get involved with Our Children's Trust?
In my freshman year of high school, I started working with this organization called Global Kids to mandate climate education in New York City public schools K-12, and then through that, I got connected with the Alliance for Climate Education, which is an organization was partnering on the bill, and my mentors in the two organizations thought that I would be a good addition, and have a good perspective to give to the Our Children's Trust lawsuit.

So why file a lawsuit?
I've always really liked this question because it's a realization I came to quite recently: As a teenager people want to listen to me, and I have a bunch of ideas about environmentalism and climate change. I feel like maybe my generation of activists can take it from "Reusing water bottles!" "Public transportation!" and a lot of those things often labeled as treehugger-type activities, to big policy changes. Because the fact of the matter is: Where we are now, we don't need individual change. We need policy change. The US is an example in these types of things, and being a developed country, we're one of the biggest contributors to CO2 in the environment. Developing countries like Honduras are being affected by it.

Do you get tired of hearing about reusable bottles and public transportation?
[Laughs] It was definitely something where—when I was maybe in my freshman year with all my climate change activism—I would be like, "Oh that's really great!" And it is. I'm glad people care enough to do that. And it would have been great like ten years ago, but we're at this point where we need big change now.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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