Olson Explains Fight For Climate Justice

Julia Olson spoke to a crowded room of Boston College students about her current lawsuit against the United States government on Oct. 24 at an event hosted by the environmental studies program, sociology department, and BC Law School.

Julia v. United States is a constitutional lawsuit in which Olson, alongside 21 youth plaintiffs, is arguing that the U.S. government—through its lack of action to stop climate change—is taking away citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property. 

Olson sees the U.S. government’s inaction to mitigate climate change, the degradation of ecosystems, and the continuous increase of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere as a failure to protect the rights of the country’s youth.
“The government is creating a dangerous situation for young people and future generations, and that’s unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment,” Olson said as she explained one of the major claims of her lawsuit. 

Olson studied law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. After obtaining her J.D. in 1997, she began working for various grassroots organizations dedicated to the fight against climate change. 

Her love for the environment and desire to create change greatly intensified when Olson became a mother. She said her young kids ignited her with a new fire to focus her fight on representing those whose future directly relies on the world’s present climate change actions: children. 

“Children who haven’t fully developed into adulthood are different physiologically, they’re different psychologically, and they’re vulnerable for lots of reasons,” Olson said.

Alongside 21 youth plaintiffs, all varying in age, background, and racial ethnicity, Olson first launched her case in 2010. 

Hailing from all over the U.S., the plaintiffs express a deep concern for the global implications of climate change and the effect of its possible destruction on their homes. 

Olson said her reasoning behind partnering with plaintiffs all under the age of 21 was simple. 

“It’s my belief that young people have always been at the forefront and at the heart of social justice movements,” she said.  

Olson’s case highlights that there is a need to worry about climate change, but more importantly, an increasingly urgent requirement to hold the government accountable to act, she said.

“We have just uncontroverted, amazing evidence—that is also devastating evidence— about the ways in which our plaintiffs are being harmed, and the harms that young people across the nation face,” she said. 

One of the driving claims behind Olson’s lawsuit is that the rate at which atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing is simply unsustainable. 

“The last time CO2 levels were where they are today, which is over 400 [parts-per-million], the oceans were 70 feet higher,” Olson said. 

Throughout her talk, Olson also explained how different aspects of climate change are related to one another. 

“Not only are CO2 concentrations linked to the global temperature, but global temperature of course directly relates with sea level,” she said. 

Olson showed a drawing that exemplified how, if the global temperature of the earth continues to rise, water levels could increase up to three-fourths of the Statue of Liberty’s height by 2100—making a vast majority of lowland cities completely uninhabitable. 

While the impact of the changing earth presents a scary and unknown future, there is one major thing people need to focus on now in order to alleviate these potential effects, Olson said.  

“I see this problem as a technological problem,” she said. “It’s really about going from old energy that doesn’t work and that’s dangerous for us and transitioning to clean energy that can actually stop climate change”. 

Olson emphasized that if the U.S. could successfully introduce clean energy to replace fossil fuels, the transition’s effects on citizens’ daily lives would actually be much more minimal than some may expect. 

“At the end of the day, when our energy system is decarbonized, people aren’t going to miss that when they [turned] their lights on it was because coal was being burned,” she said. 

Currently, Olson and her team are awaiting a decision from the Ninth Circuit of Appeals on whether they can proceed to trial. 

When asked about the biggest challenge she has faced during this process, Olson talked about the constant delays from the government that serve as large obstacles in her being able to bring the case to trial. 

“They do things in our case that doesn’t happen in other cases,” Olsen said regarding the bizarre ways the government has employed to halt her and her plaintiffs. 

Still, Juliana v. United States has already made an impact on children and adults alike, and Olson said she is nowhere near close to giving up. She expressed a great hope in the power of her case and, if given a favorable decision, the necessary help it will bring to today’s vulnerable climate. 

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis/Heights Staff