Rayne teen involved in unprecedented climate lawsuit - KATC.com | Continuous News Coverage | Acadiana-Lafayette

Rayne teen involved in unprecedented climate lawsuit

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RAYNE, La. -

At the age of 14, most kids are hanging out with friends at the movies or at the mall. Few are involved in a lawsuit, standing up for what they believe in.

Jayden Foytlin, a resident of Rayne, is one of 21 child plaintiffs who are suing the federal government, claiming that the government has known for 50 years that fossil fuel emissions-- like burning coal and oil-- would change the earth's climate and make heat levels rise.

"Jayden is a fun-loving 14 year-old girl. She likes music. She's just like every other girl, but she also has this really sincere wish to help people, and I think that is just kind of innate in her," said Cherri Foytlin, Jayden's mother, who is also an environmental activist in Louisiana.

It is that innate compassion that sets Jayden apart from kids her age. She believes that climate change is the force behind the extreme weather, like recent flooding, that has affected her hometown.

"We had half a foot of water, and there was a lot of water in my room," said Jayden, who's home has flooded multiple times in the past. "So, that's the biggest fight I'm doing right now; is trying to save, well, not save, but help Louisiana, so that future generations and my generations don't have to worry about their houses getting flooded out."

And to her, age is just a number.

"I always said I wanted to be like my mom when I grew up, then I realized I don't have to grow up to do this, I can do this now," said Jayden.

Much like kids her age, she likes to paint. But, her paintings consist of the words: "No Bayou Bridge Pipeline" or "Our land, our choice."

She said she gets her activist spirit from her mother, who is one of her biggest role models.

"Some parents tend to not really talk about it, but my parents were always open about social issues or climate issues, so it's not like I was brainwashed. It was more like I got the knowledge about what was happening around coastal erosion or oil spills," said Jayden

She is now taking that knowledge to court where she and the others are suing eight government agencies to force them to regulate carbon dioxide emissions.

"I'm very excited about the long road ahead because I get to spend that long road ahead with the people I can trust, and the people I like and have the same interests as me, and the people that always support me," said Jayden.

But the lawsuit has brought her some heartache as well.

"I've gotten some backlash from family and friends. I don't really want to talk about it, but it's hard," said Jayden.

"I asked her, I don't know how many times, 'Do you want to step back from this? Is it too much?' Because I want her to have a good life, you know, she's got plenty of time to fight. And she's told me 'no,'" said Cherri.

The federal lawsuit was filed in 2015 in U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon. It names the president and a number of U.S. Departments and their leaders as defendants, including the departments of energy, interior, transportation, agriculture, commerce and defense.

The suit alleges the U.S. has known for more than 50 years that carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels causes global warming, and "continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their well-being and survival."

Rather than seeking monetary damages, the plaintiffs want a judge to confirm their beliefs that the government is violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property by failing to act on climate change and by encouraging the use of fossil fuels.

"[The] only thing we get from this lawsuit is protecting the people of the coast. This is her birth right. This is where her daddy is from; she's been here for a long time. She wants to protect this area. She wants to live here, so that’s what shes trying to do," said Cherri.

They want the judge to order the government to prepare and implement "an enforceable national remedial plan" to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric carbon dioxide to stabilize the climate. They also want the government to create a "consumption-based inventory" of carbon emissions.

Another issue for the plaintiffs is Section 201 of the Energy Policy Act. Enacted in 1992, it mandates the authorization, "without modification or delay," of natural gas imports and exports between the U.S. and any nation with which the country's involved in a free-trade agreement.

The law deemed such deregulation "consistent with the public interest," yet the plaintiffs are asking a judge to review its constitutionality.

According to the suit, the law is contrary to the public interest as it fosters "the short-term economic and energy interests" of corporations, and today's young people and future generations will have to live with the consequences.

Environment and the public trust

The plaintiffs' claims center around the Public Trust Doctrine, a principle that holds the government responsible for protecting natural and cultural resources for its people.

Billy Goodell, a Lafayette environmental lawyer who's not involved in the climate lawsuit, explained that the Public Trust Doctrine forms the basis of most environmental litigation.

"It basically says that the governmental agencies hold public lands — the seashore, the oceans, groundwater, things like that — the air — in public trust for the citizens, and that they have an affirmative obligation, an affirmative duty, to protect those resources as the trustee," Goodell said.

Even if people, companies and industries are operating within legal limits and their emissions are permitted, the doctrine asserts that "if that's causing harm, the federal government has to step in and address the harm," Goodell said.

Goodell said most claims made under the public trust doctrine so far have involved the use of sea shores and sea bottoms, but it's now being used to address the contemporary issues of sea level rise and, in its most novel application yet, to tackle the overarching issue of climate change.

Although Goodell said it's not unheard of for a judge to find the government's not doing enough to protect the environment for its people, "the plaintiffs have a tough road ahead of them."

The case so far has been successful for Foytlin and her peers. A judge has found they have standing to sue, as they allege they're actively suffering from the effects of climate change and future generations will suffer, too. The judge also denied the government's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and trial was set for February of next year.

But the federal government — now led by the Trump administration — is asking an appeals court to weigh in. Government lawyers are asking the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review its earlier effort to dismiss the case.

Should the appeals court agree to a review, it could again open the door to the case's dismissal, and even if the judge rules against her, she says the lawsuit will have been worth it.

"Even if we do lose this case, I hope other kids, and even other adults, get inspired about what we're doing, and that it's such an important issue that a whole bunch of kids got together to fight for this," said Jayden.

As Jayden's mother reflected on the process, her shoulders straightened up and her voice rose a few notches with pride.

"Jayden's the voice for a lot of people, but mostly for her generation, who wants to have a clean, stable environment and land to live on," said Cherri. "I'm hoping at some point in the future that people will note that this 14-year-old child stood up for them when nobody else would." 

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