Young Canadians file lawsuit against federal government over climate change

More than a dozen young Canadian activists have filed a lawsuit against the federal government over climate change, claiming Ottawa has violated their fundamental rights by contributing to the warming planet, and demanding a national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The lawsuit from the group of 15 youth, who range in age from 10 to 19, is the latest in a new legal strategy looking to hold governments across the planet accountable for the consequences of climate change. Similar legal action has been taken in India, the Netherlands and the United States.

The plaintiffs stood together on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery on Friday morning to announce their lawsuit, introducing themselves, one after the other, by name, age, home and climate fears. Each spoke passionately about harms they’ve seen in their everyday lives at home, including wildfires, floods, drought and struggling crops.

“I don’t want to die before I even get a chance to live,” said Sàj Starcevich, 13, who lives in Melfort, Sask.

The children and teens are claiming they have “suffered specific, individualized injuries” due to climate change and high greenhouse gas emissions in the country. They claim the government has infringed on their constitutional rights to life, liberty and security of the person by standing idle as the climate shifts.

The statement of claim filed in a federal court in Vancouver on Friday alleges that, “despite knowing for decades” that carbon emissions “cause climate change and disproportionately harm children,” the government continued to allow emissions to increase at a level “incompatible with a stable climate capable of sustaining human life and liberties.”

“This case is my opportunity to take my activism from the streets into the courtroom so that we as youth can demand that our government stops violating our rights,” Sierra Robinson, a 17-year-old plaintiff from Vancouver Island, wrote in a press release published Friday.

Albert Lalonde, 17, said young Canadians can’t dream, pursue a career or think about raising children in the face of a deteriorating climate.

“I am forced to be here because my conscience won’t let me do anything else but fight every single day of my life, and I’m not alone. I am joined in this fight by the millions of young people around the world demanding climate justice,” he told a cheering crowd Friday.

“We will fight … until we have secured our future on this planet,” added Lalone, who lives in Montreal.

The lawsuit was filed ahead of a climate strike in Vancouver, which will be attended by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, 16, stood quietly off to the side in solidarity as the plantiffs made their speeches Friday.

The plaintiffs are calling on the Canadian government to create a climate change plan that lowers the country’s greenhouse gas emissions “in a manner consistent with what best available science indicates is needed for the federal government to protect young Canadians, do its fair share to stabilize the climate system and avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change,” the statement read.

The plaintiffs are from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories. The group is being represented by a high-profile legal team, including noted constitutional lawyer Joseph Arvay. The David Suzuki Foundation is backing the teens by supporting the case’s legal framework and acting as a communications lead. 

Similar lawsuits around the world, including the Canadian effort, are supported by Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit organization that says it’s dedicated to protecting natural systems for present and future generations.

Senior attorneys with the trust have said the courts are a key part of government, with the ability to intervene when the nation’s leaders take action that violates the rights of the people.

International movement 

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions filed by youth around the world in recent years. 

A group of young Americans between the ages of 11 and 22 sued the U.S. federal government in 2015, accusing federal officials and oil industry executives of violating their due process rights by doing nothing about carbon pollution, despite knowing for decades that it poisons the environment. 

A district court in the Netherlands sided with an environmental group in 2015, ruling the Dutch government was legally obligated to protect its citizens by doing its part to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 C — the target, the United Nations has said, that must be met in order to avoid a “severe, pervasive and irreversible” impact on the planet.

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