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I sued my state because I can't breathe there. They ignored me | Jamie Margolin | Opinion

Category: Political Protests,Politics

I was born after 9/11, so extensive airport security has always been a reality for me. So has the fact that life as we know it on this planet is coming to an end because of climate change, and that my generation will inherit a looming apocalyptic-scale disaster.

My name is Jamie, I’m 16-years-old, I’m going into my junior year of high school, and I, along with 12 other young people, recently sued the State of Washington. Why? Because Governor Inslee and the whole state government is screwing over my generation.

Washington State’s elected officials talk about solving the climate crisis, but then turn around and issue permits for fossil fuel plants that poison communities, and destroy the ecosystems, water, air, and land that my generation and future generations need to survive.

The even crazier part is that they are destroying our life support systems with a fossil fuel energy system that is wholly unnecessary to provide for our basic energy needs. Experts across the planet say that we don’t need to power our planet with dirty life-threatening fuels.

Summers in my home city of Seattle didn’t use to be smoggy to the point that they make me and my friends sick. In fact, the didn’t used to be smoggy and smoke-filled at all. But now, when I scroll through my Instagram feed in the summer, instead of seeing pictures of my friends enjoying the sun, I see some of them wearing gas masks above captions saying things like “I can’t find breathable air anywhere.” I also see pictures of what is supposed to be the Seattle skyline, but all you can see is smoke.

gas masks
‘I see friends wearing gas masks on social media’ Photograph: Instagram

Smoke from the fires in Canada – worsened by unusually hot and dry summers – have made the air quality on the worst days, worse than in Beijing. The winds blow the smoke down over the pacific northwest, suffocating us.

There was a week in August where I didn’t dare to step outside. It was grey 24/7 – not from clouds, but from smoke. If I went outside, it hurt to breathe, the air smelled funny, and I got a headache and sore throat. This is not the way it used to be in my hometown.

I’m able bodied, so for my friends with chronic health conditions, it’s even worse. A few had to go to the ER for respiratory emergencies caused by the smoke. My city is suffocating every summer. The whole Pacific Northwest can’t breathe.

In the US Constitution it says that everyone has the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Washington state law says that I have a “fundamental and inalienable right to a healthful environment.”

But how am I supposed to live my life and pursue happiness when I can’t go outside in the summer and am living on a planet where record-breaking storms, epidemic wildfires, and heat waves are displacing, sickening, and killing thousands?

That’s why, with the help of the nonprofit organization, Our Children’s Trust, 12 other youth and I sued the State of Washington for denying young people our constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by actively worsening the climate crisis.

Last week we got a ruling from the court that was pretty much a complete write-off to my generation and kids everywhere who apparently now have to be “optimistic” and beg our leaders for rights so basic as a livable planet. Rights that previous generations were able to enjoy.

The ruling granted the state’s motion to dismiss our case. Instead of supporting young people asking for a livable future, the state fought tooth and nail to shut us down, and the court ruled in favor of silencing the young people’s pleas.

What’s even more disappointing is that the judge ignored the fact that the legislature has already stated that the youth have a “fundamental and inalienable” right to a “healthful environment.” Here is what the law says: “The legislature recognizes that each person has a fundamental and inalienable right to a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.” This is the only right the legislature has characterized as “fundamental and inalienable.”

The judge who ruled on this case did not assume that the scientific facts we put in the complaint were true, which is what he was supposed to do. He instead relied upon his personal opinions and outside sources for the proposition that the youth should be “optimistic” about their futures and hope that the ruling generation will change course. Optimistic. How in the world am I supposed to be optimistic when I am literally being given warnings not to go outside and breathe the air because it is unhealthy. Apparently he neglected to look outside his window to see how wildfire smoke has plagued our city.

When youth try to take a stand, our leaders blatantly and explicitly disregard our rights, pat us on the head, and give us the legal equivalent of “you’re cute, don’t worry about a thing little kid, we’re taking care of it.” But the Washington State government isn’t taking care of anything when it comes to climate action.

My generation’s right to a healthful environment is not an “aspiration,” as the judge said. My own legislature has already recognized this as a right that must be protected: “The legislature recognizes that each person has a fundamental and inalienable right to a healthful environment and that each person has a responsibility to contribute to the preservation and enhancement of the environment.”

This is the only right the legislature has characterized as “fundamental and inalienable.” The constitution requires the judicial branch to serve as a check and balance of executive and legislative actions that are unconstitutional. This principle was used to challenge laws that segregated African-American children in public education, laws that prevented same-sex couples from marrying and laws that prevent meaningful suffrage.

Youth being harmed by climate change are entitled to the same kind of consideration. We won’t stop fighting until we get the change we need and deserve.


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