Good News from Texas Judge: Atmosphere is part of the Public Trust and Should Be Protected by Government

Written by Eamon Umphress, age 16 | 

Most 16 year olds I know, including me, are interested in getting a job, a car, buying clothes and hanging out with friends, not saving the world. But I was given an opportunity to do just that. In 2011, at age 14, I became part of a groundbreaking legal effort to protect the atmosphere for future generations, to ensure that we have a planet when we grow up. I became part of the iMatter/Our Children’s Trust legal action along with kids from 49 states petitioning their state and federal governments to protect the atmosphere from the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions using an ancient legal concept called the “public trust doctrine”. The doctrine is based on the idea that the government has the obligation to protect things that the community relies on, like water. But it has never been applied to the atmosphere before. That’s because no one ever thought it needed protecting.

Even in my short time on the planet, I’ve noticed a change in the climate. The hottest years in a century have happened in the last 10 years. Last summer was the hottest on record with over 90 days with temperatures above 100 degrees. And the projections for my beautiful green city (Austin, TX) are that by 2050 our climate will resemble the Sonoran desert.
But never could I have imagined that this lawsuit would have any real life impact. The idea even seemed a little far fetched to me–suing the government to protect the air? I didn’t really give the effort much chance of success, but I thought it was important enough to give it a try, even if it seemed likely to fail.

Part of what convinced me to do this was all the air alerts that warns old people and children to stay inside. It made me wonder if it was always like this. Did kids and grandparents always have to stay inside to protect their lungs? It was clear that something bad was happening to the air…you could even see the increasing amount of smog on the skyline. I was thinking someone had to do something about all the pollution going into the atmosphere, so I decided I would…because if I didn’t, who would– someone had to do something.

So I was really surprised when I learned that the judge said that the public trust doctrine must apply to all natural resources. The state had said it only applied to water, but the judge disagreed and broadened it. The amazing thing is that the legal break thru happened in Texas where we have a reputation for conservative judges and weak environmental laws. It really showed me that if you want something to happen, and you step up and make the effort, it just might.

A lot of kids my age feel like there’s not much they can do to make a difference on an individual scale. But I did. So you can too.

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