Photo: Catia Juliana

Aji Piper turned 18 this year, just voted for the first time, and is one of 21 youth plaintiffs suing the U.S. government to save the planet.

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You can set your calendars to it. With every election cycle comes a series of hand-wringing articles about the youth vote. Will they vote? Do they care? What issues will get them to the polls? What is Bumble anyway?

Early returns on the youth vote in the 2018 midterms have been promising, and, shocker, the kids are just like the adults. Engagement all depends on who you talk to. Take Aji Piper for instance. He turned 18 this year, just voted for the first time, and oh, he’s one of 21 kids ages 11 to 21 suing the government to help save the future for the rest of us.

Piper spoke with A Beautiful Perspective about how he got involved in Juliana vs. U.S. and joined the lawsuit that argues a healthy climate is one of our constitutional rights.

How did you get involved in climate change as an issue?

I grew up from ages 5 to 10 on Olympic Peninsula, a 45-minute ferry ride from West Seattle,  where I live now. There wasn’t much out there—it’s a rural community. I was hearing about global warming, polar ice caps melting … but it seemed distant and far off and I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no network around me. When I moved to Seattle around 2010-2011, I got involved with Plant for the Planet, and that got me going in climate activism.

Why did the issue feel so important to you?

When I went backpacking in the Cascade Mountains in 2014 we saw the area of forest burned by the Carlton Complex Fire, and fire season is getting worse. Air quality is worse. We used to have a high chance of snow in Seattle each winter, but we have not seen snow for two years. The winter last year was so mild we got three crops of raspberries from the bushes, where usually you get two crops before a winter freeze. That never came, and the bushes just kept on producing. It’s pretty startling and alarming, and I threw myself at the climate work.

Are you surprised it took a group of young people to bring this case?

It’s more frustrating. I do expect the older generation to have done more. Obama was heralded as a climate hero, but in all honesty, he didn’t do anything. I hold no frustration toward people from previous generations who didn’t know. But I am upset with corporations and the government that knew about the impacts and lied, or covered up the truth about the facts of climate change to promote and protect the fossil fuel industry.

After Typhoon Haiyan, the hashtag #ExxonLied was trending because they knew climate change was real and existed long ago and their actions exasperated it. The damage in places like the Philippines is because of increasing sea levels. Exxon lied, and the government knew and helped Exxon lie about it.

Do you see climate change as a political issue?

The case was filed before Trump was even running for president. This is not a political thing and has nothing to do with the party in office. For me, the lawsuit is not about Democrat or Republican, it’s about cold hard facts.

The government knows climate change is having these impacts and is doing nothing. They are infringing on our rights. The Constitution says we have the right to life, liberty and property. These are unalienable rights, and you can’t say a clean environment isn’t part of those. A clean environment isn’t a privilege, not a maybe, not an optional thing. Clean air, clean water, and food are necessities of life. A clean, liveable climate capable of sustaining life must be protected, or everyone in America is having their rights violated. This crosses political boundaries and borders.

You’ve been waiting three years for trial. Have you seen any positive progress along the way?

Yes, we’ve already established for the court record that climate change is real and humans are behind it. Everything we’ve done from the industrial revolution and fossil fuel infrastructure has caused climate change, and that is different from natural climate change created by planetary cycles. The court has ruled that humans created this and the government under the Obama administration has acknowledged it in its briefs to the court, so that’s out of the way.

What is your reaction to the Trump administration’s approach to the case?

I think they are trying to circumvent the judicial system and natural rule of law. They continue to file motions with higher courts to force the district court to stay or dismiss the case. They are actually arguing that the case can’t go to trial because litigating it would put too great a financial burden on the government. I think that is kind of a funny irony. They give tax breaks to the rich, cutting away the budget, and then they complain about budget constraints.

Why did you think a lawsuit was the right strategy as opposed to a proposition or campaigning for legislative change?

People often overlook the judicial system as a vehicle for change. I agree it’s important to vote and participate in choosing politicians, but we need change that is beyond what the current politicians have demonstrated is in their capacity. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t line up with their beliefs, or they are in the pocket of corporations, or they have too little influence in their position and the rest of the House or Senate won’t vote with them.

Politicians haven’t shown us they have the capacity to do this, that we can trust them to work and fight for this change for the people. So, I’m not going to attack politicians if they can’t deliver. There are other parts of government that are equally responsible for protecting our constitutional rights.

What will you say as testimony at the trial if given the chance?

I haven’t thought much about my testimony yet, and it depends on what the government would question me about. If I were to say one thing it would be to let the facts speak for themselves. The plaintiffs’ injuries are real and the science is real. I believe we do have a chance of winning, because it’s not arbitrary feelings or an unmeasurable thing. There is a measurable impact. We have measurements of the carbon dioxide produced and how much it affects the atmosphere.

What’s your general attitude or outlook in the current political climate?

Pessimism doesn’t help and optimism is unrealistic. Shit will happen, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. I’m a climate activist, and I see the need for this to happen. We’ve got to win. I have to do the right thing, and the right thing is being active in my community—voting, fighting for climate justice, protecting the rights of citizens. We have no idea if we’ll win or lose, but either way there will be more work to do. Failure doesn’t mean it’s over. You just keep going. You keep going not because it gives us fame or recognition, but because it’s the right thing to do.

To follow updates on the case, visit Our Children’s Trust, and learn about Youth v. Gov, the documentary chronicling the case, on Kickstarter.