10 things you’ve always wanted to ask a 16-year-old suing the government over climate change

“Climate change is so urgent and scary that I’m practically sacrificing my childhood to do this.”

Activist and organizer Jamie Margolin in her hometown of Seattle, USA. Photo by Olivia Villa.

At just 16 years old, Jamie Margolin has spent more time fighting for climate justice than most people twice her age. Whether it’s lobbying her elected officials or organising her fellow high school students, she’s at the forefront of a movement to protect the environment and defend human rights. And for the last year, she’s been involved in a groundbreaking case to win the right to a healthy climate for future generations.

The opponent? Her own government.

As a plaintiff on the Washington state “Youth v. Gov” climate lawsuit, Jamie’s part of a battle that could change the way governments all over the world address climate change. On top of that, she’s the founder of Zero Hour, a youth-led movement to bring urgency to the case for climate action.

Suing the US government is a pretty bold idea. Who came up with it and how did you get involved?

The idea came from the organization Our Children’s Trust. In the [United States] constitution, it says we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But you can’t pursue happiness if you can’t breathe air.

You can’t live if you don’t have the basics and a livable Earth to live on.

It’s pretty basic and you’d think it would be a given. Yes, you should have a livable planet and breathe clean air … because duh. But unfortunately it’s not a given. So we’re suing for those basic human rights.

So, there are actually multiple lawsuits here. One against the national government and the Trump administration, and several against different state governments, including yours. Help us understand — are you suing Donald Trump?

It is a little satisfying to say that I am a part of an organisation that is suing Trump, I’m not going to lie, but the focus on Trump is misleading.

Our lawsuits are really not about Trump; they were filed before he was in office. A lot of what we’re seeing right now suggests that every march and every protest are just about this one guy. As if if we could get rid of this one guy and everything would be all great.

What we’re suing for is a specific climate recovery plan, because the United States government has known for years about climate change and what fossil fuels do to our environment, and they’ve continued to make it worse.

I’m a plaintiff on the Washington state lawsuit, not the federal lawsuit. As for my state, our governor Jay Inslee has talked the talk on climate change, but he hasn’t walked the walk. He’s in support of a lot of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and that’s deadly for my future.

There’s no time to keep investing in fossil fuels. Even though it has a reputation as a progressive state, Washington isn’t fulfilling its duty to protect resources for the next generation.

Winning the case would obviously be a huge step legally and politically. What would it mean to you personally?

It would mean that finally my right to exist is acknowledged legally. It sounds kind of melodramatic, but it’s not. Right now, the government is not acknowledging youth’s right to have a normal life and not worry about hurricanes destroying our homes or if the air we breathe is killing us.

It’s a step towards acknowledging those basic human rights.

Speaking of hurricanes, last year we saw super storms devastate communities all over the world. Wildfires burned right up to your backyard in Seattle. At the same time, the US government walked backwards on climate action — how did you process that?

It really hit home this summer when the entire sky was blanketed in smoke. For several days it hurt to breathe. You couldn’t see the sky — it looked cloudy but it was smog from the wildfires. It was really scary because it was so in your face.

It’s not fair to my generation — or people suffering from extreme weather like in Puerto Rico — to not acknowledge the cause. All the talk is about rebuilding. Yes, we need to rebuild, but we also need to set a new system in place so these things don’t keep happening.

We can’t control hurricanes or wildfires, but we know climate change is making them worse. So we need to take every measure we can to stop them from getting worse.

You’re in high school, you’re a plaintiff in this major lawsuit, AND you’re an organiser — that sounds like a lot of work! How do you make time for everything?

Well, a lot of my lunchtimes are spent finding empty classrooms to do organising calls. I spend a lot of bus rides home from school holding onto the rail with one hand and holding my phone with the other to talk about strategy. I’ll wake up at 5:30 in the morning to do homework that I couldn’t finish because I was at an action.

It’s a big sacrifice, and the fact that I’m working so hard on this should ring the alarm for people in power. Climate change is so urgent and scary that I’m practically sacrificing my childhood to do this.

But it’s not like I don’t have fun. The organising community is amazing. There’s a sense of being part of something bigger, and part of a team that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Multiple studies have shown that young people, on average, care more about climate change than older generations. Why do you think that is?

It’s pretty obvious to me. I’m in high school. We’re constantly being asked to plan for our futures: to plan for college and think about what we want to do. But I can’t plan for my future because my future is going to be full of natural disasters, instability over resources, and climate chaos.

It’s not like I’m worried about my grandchildren. That’s totally justified, but I’m going to see this with my own eyes.

I’m worried about me.

Young people may have the biggest stake in the climate movement, but they don’t always have the loudest voice. Have people ever underestimated you because of your age?

There’s a bad combination here, because I’m young and a girl. I get mansplained and talked down to as a young person. I’m also Latina, even though it’s not obvious by looking at me, so that doesn’t help either.

The worst time was when I was I was testifying at a bill hearing at my state legislature office. There were a bunch of petroleum lobbyists there to testify, and afterwards I walked up to this guy who had tried to minimize climate change as a non-issue. I don’t remember his exact words but it ended with him calling me “sweetie” a lot and touching my shoulder. The bizarre thing was that he told me to “keep fighting the good fight.” I was like, “Wait, you acknowledge that you’re fighting the bad fight?”

Talking to women who I work with, especially women of color, has helped me get some perspective on how to deal with that.

The Youth v. Gov case is just the tip of the iceberg for your activism. Tell us about some of the other things you’re working on.

I’m dedicating most of my energy to Zero Hour and the Zero Hour Youth March we’re organising for July 2018. We’re calling it Zero Hour because there’s no more time to put off dealing with climate change — this is it.

The march is an “enough is enough” type action by youth meant to disrupt business as usual and bring the world’s attention to the face of the climate crisis. But it goes beyond the march; we have put a lot of thought and effort into what comes after the event. One of the reasons we changed our name to Zero Hour is because we don’t want people to think that we are just planning an event.

We are building a movement.

We’re coming up with a set of demands that spell out what youth need in order to have a livable future. We want to show people that the climate crisis has gotten so bad that high schoolers have to get out there to raise the alarm and spoon-feed solutions to our representatives for a problem we didn’t cause.

So, what DO we need to do in order for your generation to have a livable future?

Science says we have to reach 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the end of this century. That sounds like we can wait, but we can’t.

We have to lower our emissions by 10% every year — not total, but every single year — to reach that.

We’re at 410 parts per million right now, and that’s dangerously high. Scientists have said that the best way to get to 350 is to reduce emissions 10% each year. But the longer we wait, the more we’re going to have to reduce each year, and the more difficult and costly it’s going to get.

Both before and after the Zero Hour March, we are planning a total of 35 actions to represent 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. They are still very much in the works, but the idea is to have actions ranging from going vegan for a day to perhaps student walkouts.

In Zero Hour’s platform, we’re also breaking down how to to get to 350 so we can give the solutions to our leaders on a silver platter. They have no excuse to write us off as some silly delinquents marching for who knows what — we are telling you what we need, now free our generation from climate chaos.

You got involved in activism from a young age, but that’s not the case for everyone. What would you say to people who want to get involved in the climate movement but don’t know where to start?

You don’t have to be a full-time organizer!

I think the best way is to get involved with an organisation, because it’s easy to get discouraged acting alone. I literally Googled a local organisation, attended one event, sat in the back of the room without saying much, and now here I am. The community is so valuable. Especially in these hard times, that’s what’s been keeping me sane.

And if people want to get involved with the Zero Hour Youth March, head to our Facebook page. There’s a volunteer sign up sheet and we’re definitely looking for help!


Ryan Schleeter is an editor for Greenpeace in the Americas. His writing has appeared in National Geographic, Grist, EcoWatch, and more.

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