Native American Youth Sues Governor Janice Brewer Over Failure to Combat Climate Change

February 10, 2012

Government’s inaction jeopardizes her generation’s future well-being

Phoenix, AZ – She may not be old enough to drink, vote or drive a car, but Jaime Lynn Butler, a 5th grader and member of the Navajo Nation, is old enough to recognize the danger of the government’s inaction on climate change. Today, Jaime will take time off from school to go to Maricopa County Courthouse and attend a hearing with Judge Mark Brain, who will determine whether she will have an opportunity to defend her right to a livable earth.

Jaime Lynn Butler, a 5th graderOn May 4, 2011, the Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Jaime Lynn Butler and her mother, Jamescita Pehslakai, filed a lawsuit against Arizona Governor Janice Brewer and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to compel the State to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent global warming by reducing CO2 emissions.

The plaintiffs based their lawsuit on the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires sovereign governments to manage and protect vital natural resources for the common benefit of their citizens. By evoking this doctrine, they are not asking for monetary or punitive damages.  Instead, they are petitioning the court to require the state of Arizona to develop a climate recovery plan that will protect Arizona’s resources for future generations. Former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency, Roger Martella calls the lawsuit a remarkable legal action and “comprehensive strategy…to encourage this public action to ultimately reduce greenhouse gases.”

The strategy is not limited to Arizona. It is part of a larger, innovative climate litigation strategy—the international iMatter Trust Campaign. As part of this campaign, youth plaintiffs have launched legal actions in 49 states and the District of Columbia, in addition to a federal lawsuit.

Though Jaime is just 11-years-old, she has been fighting to protect the environment for many years.  In a video produced by WITNESS, an international non-profit that uses the power of video to expose human rights abuses, Jaime explains what led her to file the lawsuit.

Using her skills as a Navajo artist, Jaime has also sent letters and artwork to President Obama. In these pieces, Jaime relays her fears about the vulnerability of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and the effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama responded and encouraged Jaime to stay active as a leader in the environmental youth movement, “Your generation will play an important role in meeting the challenges of the 21st century, and I urge you to stay involved. You can accomplish great things and urge others to do the same thing.”

But it was the alarming research from top scientists in the United States that led Jaime to take a bolder step and sue for her future. According to one of the world’s leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, “the science is clear – we must rapidly reduce fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions if we are to have a chance of protecting Earth’s natural systems for these young people.”

“Arizona is at a crossroads where it can either lead efforts to restore its snowpack, rivers and communities, or ignore the obvious awful impacts from climate change,” said Erik Ryberg, an attorney in Tucson who represents the plaintiff.  “I hope the court will recognize that the public trust embraces this most fundamental aspect of life: the rights of kids to enjoy the same natural systems that we enjoyed as kids.”

“The earth is part of us, like our own body…so shouldn’t we do everything we can to save ourselves, our Mother Earth?” says plaintiff Jaime Lynn Butler.

Background on Climate Change in Arizona

To protect Earth’s natural systems and our way of life, scientists argue that the average global surface heating must not exceed 1°C and CO2 concentrations must decline to less than 350 parts per million(ppm) this century (we are currently over 390 ppm). To accomplish this reduction, Dr. James Hansen and other renowned scientists conclude that carbon dioxide emissions need to peak in 2012 and decline by 6% per year starting in 2013.

If this is not accomplished, the predicted human-induced impacts of climate change in Arizona will be severe. In August of 2006, the Director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issued the Climate Change Advisory Group’s Climate Change Action Plan. Between 1990 and 2005, Arizona’s net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increased by nearly 56%. Taking into account certain state energy efficiency actions, the Climate Change Action Plan projects that Arizona’s GHG emissions will increase by 148% from 1990 to 2020. That rate of increase is the highest projected rate of increase among all 50 states, and almost five times higher than other states in the West with climate action plans.

For inquiries or interview requests, please contact:  Meg Rowley, 212-541-2481, meg.rowley@portland-communications.com

 

Western Environmental Law Center is a nonprofit public interest law firm that works to protect and restore western wildlands and advocates for healthy environments on behalf of communities throughout the west. www.westernlaw.org

Our Children's TrusOur Children’s Trust is a nonprofit focused on protecting earth’s natural systems for current and future generations. We are here to empower and support youth as they stand up for their lawful inheritance: a healthy planet. We are mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers. We are adults, part of the ruling generation, and we care about the future of our children—and their children’s children. www.ourchildrenstrust.org/

itrustiMatter Campaign is a youth-led campaign of the nonprofit group, Kids vs Global Warming, that is focused on mobilizing and empowering youth to lead the way to a sustainable and just world. We are teens and moms and young activists committed to raising the voices of the youngest generation to issue a wake-up call to live, lead and govern as if our future matters. www.imattercampaign.org/

WITNESS is the global pioneer in the use of video to promote human rights. We empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change. In partnership with the iMatter TRUST Campaign we seek to bring visibility to the challenges our youth already face because of the changing climate and call for a massive assault on fossil fuel emissions. Without an all-out assault, effects will range from drought to disease; from food shortages to tainted water supplies; from the loss of homes due to floods, erosion and fire to massive relocations. The human rights challenge is most succinctly summarized by Mary Robinson, “Climate change will, in short, have immense human consequences.” WITNESS partnered on this campaign in hopes that predictions will not become realities. To view the stories from our youth included in the TRUST Series go to www.witness.org/campaigns/all-campaigns/imatter or www.ourchildrenstrust.org.  

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