The Youths Are Alright

Matt Simmons, EPIC

Juliana v. US youth plaintiffs. Image courtesy of press kit.

Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, Obergefell v. Hodges, these are the names of some of the most famous and consequential court cases in United States history. They all have something in common too. In each case the plaintiffs asked the courts to recognize a right in the Constitution that was not previously recognized. 

Youth v. Gov., a documentary now available on Netflix, is the story of another such case, Juliana v. US. It documents the struggle of the 21 youth plaintiffs who sued the United States arguing that the government has violated their constitutional right to a stable climate. To quote their lead attorney, Julia Olson, “Liberty and Justice cannot exist if we have a destabilized climate system.”

The 21 youth plaintiffs come from every corner of the United States and reflect the diversity of our nation. And yet, they have one striking thing in common; they are all already experiencing the harmful effects of climate change. Whether it’s Levi, a young boy from Florida who has already experienced several hurricanes and whose home is projected to be underwater by the end of the century, or Jamie, a member of the Navajo Nation who had to leave her home due to a drought, they each have a powerful story about the impacts of climate change. 

Their stories are a powerful reminder that climate change is impacting everyone no matter where you live. The climate crisis is already upon us. As youth, the plaintiffs have a unique perspective on climate change because they bear zero responsibility for the climate crisis but will live the longest to experience its ramifications. While watching the documentary, you get a sense of how powerless these children felt learning about the climate crisis and culpability of the United States in perpetuating it. 

The documentary is a good introduction to the history of the United States’ complicity in the climate crisis. The plaintiffs’ case rests on the idea that not only did the United States fail to avert climate change but that they actively participated in causing the problem by permitting, subsidizing and promoting fossil fuels. Not only that, but the United States had knowledge of the problem much earlier than the general public and buried some of the most damning evidence. One memorable witness, a former government employee, shows the documentary team a basement full of files documenting the government’s knowledge of and lack of response to climate change. Many of the witnesses on the plaintiff’s side are former government employees who are racked with guilt over their failure to act sooner.

The documentary is also a good introduction to the byzantine nature of environmental litigation. The documentary covers several years of this case, but the courts barely make it through one of the very first issues that any court hears when a lawsuit is brought: standing. To summarize a complicated legal issue, standing is the doctrine that determines whether a plaintiff has the right to sue in the first place. A plaintiff must show 1) that they have been injured, 2) that the defendant caused their injury and 3) that the court can redress their harm. If a plaintiff cannot prove all three  of those elements their case is tossed out of court. Much of the documentary is spent with the plaintiff’s attorney, Julia Olson, as she explains how she is attempting to meet each of those three elements. 

Despite this technically being a legal documentary, the youth are the real stars of the show. Their joyous cries and disappointed moans as the case works its way through the seemingly endless legal process lend emotion to a story that could easily be boring if told in the wrong way. While at the same time the documentary does an excellent job of explaining the case against the U.S. government whose actions have directly accelerated the climate crisis. By the end of the documentary, I was thoroughly convinced that we do have a right to a stable climate and that those kids deserve better than what our government has left them. You can stream Youth v. Gov on Netflix now.

For a look at local youth activism, check out Mendocino County Youth for Climate at