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A Gustavus student is suing Trump over climate change

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Nathan Baring, a 19-year-old student at Gustavus Adolphus College, seen here, is a plaintiff in the landmark Juliana v. United States climate change lawsuit.
Bill Alkofer | MPR file

Nathan Baring's environmental activism traces back to February 2013. He was 13 years old. 

That's when he wrote his first letter to the editor, sounding the alarm on air quality issues in his hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska. 

At age 15, he became one of 21 youth plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the United States, arguing the federal government has been and continues violating constitutional rights in failing to "preserve a habitable climate system for present and future generations." 

"I saw this as one of the last major channels that I could use as a young person without the right to vote at the time, so I jumped on the opportunity," Baring, a student at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, said of his decision to join the suit. 

On Tuesday, oral arguments begin in Juliana v. United States in Portland, Ore., at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawyers for the 21 youth plaintiffs with climate nonprofit Our Children's Trust and the Trump administration are expected to have 20 minutes to argue before a three-judge panel. 

Our Children's Trust says its attorney will seek an injunction preventing the U.S. from "issuing leases and mining permits for extracting coal on federal public lands, leases for offshore oil and gas exploration and extraction activities, and federal approvals for new fossil fuel infrastructure" while the suit is ongoing. 

The suit began during the Obama administration and now faces President Trump's administration in court. In general, it accuses the government of errors of action and omission that have jeopardized human rights for future generations: 

"For over fifty years, the United States of America has known that carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels was causing global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their wellbeing and survival. Defendants also knew the harmful impacts of their actions would significantly endanger Plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millennia. Despite this knowledge, Defendants continued their policies and practices of allowing the exploitation of fossil fuels."

Activism from Alaska to Minnesota

  Baring said he has seen climate change's effects in his home of Alaska, inspiring his years of environmental activism. 

In Fairbanks, he said, there's winter rain, melting permafrost and a changing growing season. Elsewhere in Alaska, entire communities are being wiped away by melting sea ice increasing water levels. 

The phrase "climate changed" is applied to some Alaskan areas, Baring said, and he finds that sense of loss drives his activism. 

"What it really comes down to for me is the loss of the Arctic identity that I had when I was growing up," he said. 

One reason Baring chose to attend college in Minnesota was because of its colder climate, he said. And he said he sees similar climate change concerns in both Alaska and Minnesota.

Baring is a climate activism organizer on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus in St. Peter. He said he's found like-minded students on campus and helped organize Gustavus Groundswell — a movement by students, faculty and staff to hold the university accountable for its role in climate change. 

Overall, Baring said he sees the national conversation on climate change shifting in a positive way that acknowledges the threats it poses. He cited the recent school strikes and IPCC climate report as catalysts. 

Cases like Juliana v. U.S. are helping drive change in a legal sense, too, he said. 

"To have judge state publicly on the record that a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental, it already gives us some awesome groundwork that we can build on," he said. "It's cool that the U.S. legal system is responding."

Hear Baring's interview on Climate Cast by using the audio player above.

Correction (May 30, 2019): Nathan Baring's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.