Kelsey Juliana, an 18-year-old activist, is fighting climate change in the courts and walking across the country to spread the word on global warming.
As world leaders converge for the UN’s global summit on climate and thousands gather in New York for the People’s Climate March, Bill talks to 18-year-old Oregonian Kelsey Juliana, who is walking across America to draw attention to global warming.
Kelsey Juliana comes by her activism naturally – her parents met in the 1990’s while fighting the logging industry’s destruction of old growth forests and she attended her first protest when she was two months old.
Get our free emails
Now just out of high school, she’s co-plaintiff in a major lawsuit being spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust that could force the state of Oregon to take a more aggressive stance against the carbon emissions warming the earth and destroying the environment. She’s walking across America as part of the Great March for Climate Action, due to arrive in Washington, DC, on November 1.
“You don’t have to call yourself an activist to act,” she says. “I think that’s so important that people my age really get [that] into their heads. As a younger person, I have everything to gain from taking action and everything to lose from not… It’s important that youth are the ones who are standing up because of the fact that we do have so much to lose.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Even if you’re in denial, and I hope you’re not, you know about climate change. Everyone can see the wildfires and drought in California; the fatal flash floods in Arizona; the punch of a hurricane pounding Mexico’s Baja coast, the strongest in nearly fifty years, battering locals and trapping tourists in their hotels. These disasters are made more powerful by global warming and it’s only going to get worse for us and for future generations. Unless we act now. That’s why more than 120 world leaders are coming to New York City next Tuesday for the UN’s global summit on climate — trying yet again to provoke governments to get on with it — reduce those carbon emissions that are heating up the atmosphere, before it’s too late.
So here in New York, in the days leading up the summit, there’s a lot happening to keep the UN on point. The People’s Climate March, perhaps the largest ever, with over a thousand organizations behind it. A three-day gathering of religious leaders at Union Theological Seminary on what the “National Catholic Reporter” calls “the number one pro-life issue” of our time, climate change. And on Monday, there will be a mass sit-in on Wall Street aimed at fossil fuel extractors and the investors who love them.
But of all the people here for these events, there’s one in particular I wanted you to meet. Kelsey Juliana is her name, and I learned about her because she’s part of an unusual legal effort to slow down global warming. Kelsey lives in Oregon, where a law professor named Mary Christina Wood, author of this book, “Nature’s Trust”, has created a legal strategy to protect the atmosphere. The basic notion goes all the way back to ancient Rome, and it says that government holds in public trust for all its citizens the resources they need to survive, and can be held accountable if it fails to protect those resources for future generations.
And that’s how Kelsey Juliana wound up in court at age 15. Yes, 15. Even as a teenager she was known for her environmental activism. Frankly, it came naturally to her. Her parents met in the ‘90s when they were protesting the destruction of old growth forests by the logging industry. Kelsey followed in their footsteps. She agreed to be one of two plaintiffs in a suit claiming the state of Oregon was not doing all it could to protect their future by reducing global warming. The first judge said his court didn’t have jurisdiction to resolve the issue, but the Oregon Court of Appeals found merit in the case and told the lower court, try again. While the legal process creeps forward, Kelsey has turned 18, graduated from high school and is walking across the country in the Great March for Climate Action that started in Los Angeles and will end up in Washington DC, on November 1st.
KELSEY JULIANA: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Did you personally explore this public trust doctrine? Did you want to know what it was about?
KELSEY JULIANA: To be honest, when I, you know, first got invited to be on the case in my own state, I was going into freshman year of high school. I had a lot of things on my plate, on my mind. And when I got the call, you know, would you like to be a plaintiff for this lawsuit, I didn’t know, really, what a plaintiff meant. I didn’t know all the legal terms. I didn’t know what it really meant. The thing that caught with me is, you are doing this to protect natural resources and the environment for your generation, for your friends, and for your future generations.
You know, it’s also an honor. It’s an honor to be a plaintiff on a lawsuit. Because it’s a movement that I’m a part of. It’s in no way my lawsuit. I’m just a representative, you know, of the people of Oregon.
BILL MOYERS: But at 15, you should’ve been reading “The Hunger Games,” right? I mean, not legal briefs, not delving into the public trust doctrine.
KELSEY JULIANA: You know what? Blame it on my parents, you know?
BILL MOYERS: How so?
KELSEY JULIANA: They brought me up with this. You know, people always ask, when did I start this? If you really want to track it down, my first rally, I believe I was two months old. When I was in middle school I was known as the eco girl, the girl who would run down the hallway in my school and turn off all the lights, you know. Things like that.
BILL MOYERS: Do some of your friends in high school think you’re weird?
KELSEY JULIANA: No. They seem to all support me but not join me. Which is almost worse than not supporting me, you know, because they get it. And they don’t do anything. And to why that is, I understand.
Hey, we have college we need to think about. We have SATs. We have soccer practice. We have to make an impression for our college admissions office. You know, we have so many things in the immediate future, and climate change is such a long-term thing to think about.
And even though, yes, we are seeing the effects of climate change today, yesterday, a lot of the places that we’re seeing climate, like, really horrible climate chaos is in impoverished places, or third world countries. So, you know, these places of privilege, it’s hard to see the effects truly. Because we’re just, we’re quite sheltered.
But in my own hometown, you know, I can go to the coast and I see the effects very clearly. And the starfish are actually dying off on the Oregon coast this summer. They have been dying off because of diseases that they are linking to increased temperatures and whatnot.
And, you know, we’re seeing erosion on the coastlines, and we’re seeing effects in our mountains. I mean, you can definitely, if you look, truly, you can see the connections. But you can also totally turn a blind eye if you want to.
You know, I’ve kind of been raised and brought up with these morals, these values, of putting, you know, the earth on an equal platform as myself, caring for others, caring for, that includes future generations. So, you know, when I was approached with the public trust lawsuit, it wasn’t really, like, new for me.
BILL MOYERS: The law professor who has developed this theory in its more modern garb, Mary Christina Wood, says it’s because the government agencies that are supposed to protect our natural resources have been captured by corporate raiders and lobbyists, that these agencies treat these industries as their clients instead of the public. Do you think that’s right?
KELSEY JULIANA: I think, unfortunately, we, you know, do have a lot of corruption, a lot of money, a lot of greed that influences most of our governmental decisions. So, I do think that’s right. And that’s why we’re, you know, going to the courts, to hold the legislature accountable.
Public trust states that the government is a trustee to protect these natural resources that every living species, including humans, rely upon for our survival, for our well-being. And so the public trust says, government, we hold you, we trust you to put these resources, air, water, land, you know, to protect them for this generation and for many generations down the line.
BILL MOYERS: So Kelsey, why do you think this public trust doctrine applies to the atmosphere?
KELSEY JULIANA: I think it makes perfect sense. You know, we’re protecting a forest here, the ocean here, this here. Okay, well, save yourself some time. That the atmosphere is just the all-encompassing resource that everything depends on, every life force. So to kind of not hold that in protection, to let that be exploited and polluted, it goes against our rights. And it’s not just.
BILL MOYERS: You remember how you felt when the first judge turned thumbs down?
KELSEY JULIANA: Yeah. I was extremely disappointed. And yet, I wasn’t totally shocked. The, you know, my disappointment comes from my, really, my disbelief. How can you not, how can you not say yes? How can you not see the importance? How can you not feel compelled to do something?
You know, first, because it’s an extremely important issue. It’s the most relevant issue, social justice, environmental justice issue, of this time, and because we’re kids. I mean, that’s what I really don’t understand. I think there’s so much power in having youth stand, you know, in court and saying, will you please, you know, protect this vital resource, I would say one of the most vital resources, for me and for my children? I think that’s so powerful. And so to have someone decline that is just, I don’t understand. I don’t understand it.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think this will get to the Supreme Court ultimately? Do you think you stand a chance with John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Anthony Kennedy, all of whom basically believe that it’s the politicians, the state legislature, who should resolve these issues?
KELSEY JULIANA: I have optimism that this will go through. In my own state, you know, we got dismissed from the trial court. The judge said it wasn’t in his jurisdiction to, you know, follow through with the case.
We appealed. And the Court of Appeals turned it around and said, no. This is, you know, the court has every right to follow through. This is in the court’s power. The whole theory about having lawsuits and legal actions in, you know, throughout the states, and there are international cases as well, is that we hope it’ll be what we call a domino effect. You know, a win here will hopefully influence all the wins across the states. Because really, it just takes one brave judge to say, yes, this is important.
BILL MOYERS: So how did you feel when the Court of Appeals said, gave you a second opinion?
KELSEY JULIANA: You know, it was the last day of high school for me. And, you know, senior year, so huge celebration.
And also, I had a news story coming out that morning as well on the local NPR station about me going on the Great March for Climate Action.
And so it was a big morning. And I got an email the night before saying, await the results from the court the next morning. And so I woke up, got ready for school. You know, the news story came on the radio about me going on the march.
And then, like, five minutes later, I got a phone call saying that the Court of Appeals said yes. And we’re going back to court. And I looked to my mom. And we both just cried and cried and cried. It was one of the most exciting and happy moments of my life. It was just—
BILL MOYERS: So what happens now?
KELSEY JULIANA: So now we go back to the same judge. We go back to the trial court again and, probably with different points, in a way, start over but now with the recognition that the courts, you know, do have power. And they do have a responsibility to follow through with this case.
BILL MOYERS: You turned 18 this year. You can now vote. Do you think voting matters?
KELSEY JULIANA: Good question. You know, it’s funny. Most of my spiel leading up to when I was 18 was, I’m just a kid. I can’t vote. I don’t have money to put into lobbyists and organizations, et cetera. So you know, I have to go, you know, go on lawsuit, to be in a lawsuit. Or I have to go to the street to get my voice heard.
And now I can vote. And the funniest thing is, when I turned 18, that wasn’t really, it doesn’t, nothing really felt different. I think we absolutely should vote. I also think you shouldn’t vote for people who don’t, you know, talk about climate issues.
But I think that you should, in no way, stop there. You know, voting is one way to express your voice. It’s a right that every citizen above the age of 18 has. So therefore, I think you should take full use of it. But you know, voting is sort of like clicking yes to a petition online.
You know, it’s an awesome step. I’m glad you took the time. But we can do so much more. We have, you know, so many rights and so many freedoms in this country. I really think we should take full advantage of that. That’s why I’m on the Great March for Climate Action.
BILL MOYERS: What kind of people have you been meeting?
KELSEY JULIANA: The most incredible people, the most inspiring people, farmers, ranchers, mothers, you know, students, really, I would say, average American citizens.
It’s really been enlightening to pass through Nebraska and Iowa, especially, and have republican ranchers be the ones who are stepping up the most. Because the Keystone XL is going to go right through their farm, the farm that they’ve had for generations and generations. So it really will affect, it’s a landowners’ rights problem as well as anything else.
And that’s something that I wasn’t really expecting. I flew into Nebraska thinking, oh, gosh. You know, what am I going to expect here, walking on dusty roads through cornfields and cornfields and cornfields?
We’ve been staying in all these churches which has really been amazing for me. Because I’m realizing how important it is that we have the spiritual community support us and how supportive they are of us.
BILL MOYERS: What about young people your age? Are they coming out in these towns?
KELSEY JULIANA: I have to say that most of the people that come to support us are not of my generation. And I get asked that a lot, you know, where are the youth in this movement? I wish I had a really concrete answer.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think?
KELSEY JULIANA: What I would say is, you know, I guess the thing that I know is my own story. So I guess I can start there. People ask me, why am I on the march instead of going to school as a freshman, instead of pursuing my other interests?
And the thing is, it would be really easy and really gratifying, for me to go straight into school. And I look at the Climate March and think, well, that’s an awesome movement. I totally support it. But I have these other priorities.
And then I took a step back. Wait a second. Kelsey, if you’re someone who knows all the issues, has cared deeply and passionately about these issues since you were born, and you’re not going to take the initiative to really, like we say, walk the talk, to really get uncomfortable and take a stand, how can I expect other people to?
BILL MOYERS: Why are you uncomfortable doing it?
KELSEY JULIANA: Well, there’s the very tangible, I’m uncomfortable in this very wet tent with a lightning storm going on. And I have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning. And then there’s the also uncomfortable, I’m frustrated. I’m furious.
Why am I walking? I’m tired. I want to be doing this right now. I just want some food right now. You know, I don’t think this is going to do anything. Are we going to have an impact? All these questions happen all, you know, I ask myself, what will this really do?
BILL MOYERS: Good question. What does a march do other than satisfy the marcher?
KELSEY JULIANA: I think the most beautiful thing about the march is that we’re collecting stories these issues from people across the country. And the coolest thing is that we’re going to carry them to DC and stand in front of the White House and say, climate change is an issue. It affects all of us. How do we know? Because we have walked across the country.
We have been from Los Angeles, through the Midwest, through Chicago. We have heard the stories. We have seen the effects across the country. So we know, because we are sharing the stories of people that we have personally met. And I think that’s very powerful.
BILL MOYERS: What are some of the changes you would like to see us make?
KELSEY JULIANA: You know, we can recycle. We can buy local. We can do all these really basic things that we have been saying for years.
And that’s, bravo if you do that, if you as an individual take the initiative to be more green. It’s not good enough. It’s really not good enough. I think what we need from the government is to, you know, is to make laws, and to limit the amount of CO2 that corporations can emit, and to really stop using fossil fuels. Find renewable sources of energy.
It’s ridiculous, we have the sun. We have wind. I’m so happy to see in Iowa so many wind turbines. Like, let’s use these natural resources that we have. We have the technology. We have the knowledge. Let’s implement that. But I think on a people level, you know, what can we do? We can really start using our voices and using our bodies.
On the march we’ve been talking a lot about civil disobedience. There’s only so much talking, so much discussion, so many letter writing that you can do before you need to just put your body out there and, you know, stand in front of a coal train, which people, marchers have done.
BILL MOYERS: Can you summarize the most important thing you’ve learned from marching that you didn’t expect to learn?
KELSEY JULIANA: Well, you know, even though I’m only l8, for most of my life, the actions I take today are, you know, with my future children in mind.
BILL MOYERS: You want to be a mother.
KELSEY JULIANA: And oh my gosh, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: You think this is a healthy world in which to raise children?
KELSEY JULIANA: I, no. I mean, yes, it, in a way it is. You know, we have children on the march. We have a 3-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 9-year old. And we did have a 12-year-old. He went back to school. I mean, it’s so wonderful to see them walking with us. And they talk about the issues incredibly well for a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old. They know what’s going on. But I just think, you know, if I’m worried now about having children, I can’t imagine 10, 20 years from now like the life that they’ll take. The worries that will be on me when I’m a mother will just be incredible. And—
BILL MOYERS: Because of climate change.
KELSEY JULIANA: Because of climate change.
BILL MOYERS: Because?
KELSEY JULIANA: Because the thing about climate change is that it is, you know, I’d say it’s a lot like, we’re looking to the environment for the effects of climate change. We’re looking at, you know, extreme weather changes, droughts, floods, you know, there was a flash flood in Phoenix, Arizona, there is a drought in California. I mean, you can’t deny the effects of climate change. But—
BILL MOYERS: A lot of people do.
KELSEY JULIANA: A lot of people do. I guess the connection that I’m making is that I’ve been looking at climate change and the environmental movement as purely environmental. And something that’s really enlightened me is looking at it as in the humanity sense.
Looking at it through the effects of, that climate change is having on people. The first moment I dealt with this was when I was first filing my lawsuit. And all of the questions about why I was on the lawsuit were very personal. They were, I felt selfish.
Why do you care about climate change? Because I, you know, won’t be able to do these recreational activities, because we won’t be able to eat these seafoods. And I thought, no, that’s not why I care. Those are all selfish reasons. I care because polar bears are dying. I care because, you know, these bioregions are falling apart.
No, something that is valid and important to recognize is that climate change is a selfish issue. It is totally okay to look at this from purely my own life. That from the outcome of my life. And I think that that’s okay. We don’t need to only look at ecology. We can look at it as, you know, why do I care about climate change? Because I want to be able to do these things. Because I want to ensure my children will be able to do these things.
So looking at it morally, ethically, those things are really important. And I feel reassured that it’s okay for me to think of this from a selfish perspective. Because in the end, like, this is my life. And I’m doing these things for my life and for the future generations’ lives and for the environment and for the ecology. But also for me. And so if people, I think if people start looking at it from their own life, of course you’ll be compelled to action.
Of course you want a good life. Of course you want to be able to do the things you want and to go the places you want and to be able to breathe clean air and not get cancer or asthma from pollution. Of course you want that. So yeah, I think that that’s something that’s really kind of sunk in.
BILL MOYERS: Kelsey Juliana, thank you very much for being with me.
KELSEY JULIANA: Thank you so much, I had a great time.
BILL MOYERS: When the UN Summit opens Tuesday, Kelsey will be back on the road, somewhere in the Midwest, reunited with her fellow marchers on their long walk across the continent. And those in the streets of New York City on this weekend before the summit, bearing witness, they will move on, too. We owe them our gratitude. Because they embody what the noted writer and activist Naomi Klein, in her new book “This Changes Everything,” what she calls “a ferocious love.” Love of life, family, place: love so personal and powerful it might yet save the earth and the species on it, ourselves included.
Such hope unites the global grass-roots movement for climate justice. The amounts of carbon dioxide polluting the atmosphere are skyrocketing, higher than in 800,000 years. Increasing so fast that when the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers recently crunched the numbers, they concluded that we’re just twenty years from catastrophe. Twenty years. It’s even possible now to imagine a world without birdsong. The National Audubon Society reports that of some 650 bird species studied in the United States and Canada, “more than half are likely to be […] at risk from global warming.” Frankly it’s hard to fathom my grandchildren’s world with nature’s winged choir silenced. How long will we allow the climate deniers to give our political leaders cover to run and hide from reality?
At our website, BillMoyers.com, on Tuesday, September 23rd, you’ll be able to view a special film made for the world leaders and delegates who gathered for the UN’s global summit on climate. You’ll also see our exclusive, web-only interview with the moviemakers, Lyn Davis Lear and Louie Schwartzberg.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.
Funding is provided by:
Anne Gumowitz, encouraging the renewal of democracy.
Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.
The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide.
The Herb Alpert Foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. More information at Macfound.org.
Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues.
The Kohlberg Foundation.
Barbara G. Fleischman.
And by our sole corporate sponsor, Mutual of America, designing customized individual and group retirement products. That’s why we’re your retirement company.