The Collegian
Saturday, June 15, 2024

Embracing Discomfort: Why Advocating for Change Requires Stepping Outside the Status Quo

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Growing up in the mountains offered me a unique perspective on life and an appreciation for the outdoors. From a young age, I was taught about the importance of preserving nature for future generations. Yet now, I struggle to find my voice and stand up for what is right out of fear of challenging the status quo. Today, we live in a world where the youth are leading the charge in climate change justice on both the political and legal fronts to advocate for our future. However, at the University of Richmond, students are afraid – afraid to be uncomfortable. I am afraid. 

Climate change is no longer in the distant future; it is happening now. The global youth climate strike, inspired and led by young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, has become an influential force in the fight against climate change, capturing global attention. It is a powerful movement in which young people are demanding action on climate change from governments and world leaders. Youth involvement in climate change activism is crucial as we are the ones who will be most affected by the consequences of inaction. The youth climate strike brings widespread attention to the urgent need for action against climate change. While I was in high school, my school actively took part in the global climate strike, and some teachers even sacrificed their personal days to participate. Walking alongside my classmates and chanting in unison for change during the global climate strike was a powerful experience. However, it was disheartening to find that the administration took no tangible action upon returning to school the next day, echoing the disappointing outcomes of many other climate strikes across the world.

Building on the momentum of the youth climate strike, young people have taken legal action by suing their governments for their inadequate responses to the climate crisis. These cases represent a critical step in holding governments accountable for their action or inaction. It's truly inspiring to witness young individuals standing up to the government, demonstrating the kind of bravery that many of us, including me, are hesitant to do. Our Children's Trust is a nonprofit organization that supports youth-led lawsuits against governments and corporations for their inaction on climate change. Our Children's Trust currently provides legal representation and assistance to youth worldwide and across the United States who are involved in ongoing climate action lawsuits in Florida, Hawaii, Montana, Utah and Virginia. 

A case close to home is Layla v. Commonwealth of Virginia, a group of 13 youths filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia. The lawsuit alleges that the practice of permitting fossil fuels is violating the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs. However, by invoking the doctrine of sovereign immunity, Judge Jenkins Jr. ruled in favor of the Commonwealth, effectively enabling the state to evade the lawsuit. Currently, Our Children’s Trust filed for appeal along with three amicus briefs including the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action. In my opinion, Judge Jenkins and the state of Virginia have neglected their responsibility towards our future generations by disregarding their constitutional entitlements to life, liberty, and property. I am optimistic that, when the appeal is heard, the courts will assess the case based on its inherent value as a fundamental right, rather than under the influence of political considerations.

Despite numerous cases of people struggling to be heard, only two of them will make it to court in 2023, Navahine F. v. Hawaii Department of Transportation and Held v. State of Montana. In Hawaii, the case brought by the 14 youth plaintiffs resulted in a favorable ruling by the Honorable Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree on April 6, 2023. The Department of Transportation’s effort to stop the case from proceeding to trial was rejected, and the young plaintiffs are set to start trial on September 26, 2023. Another case being heard this summer is Held v. State of Montana, and it will make history by being the first youth constitutional climate action case to make it to trial on June 12, 2023. 

In addition to the few successful cases being brought to trial in the United States, there are cases around the world heading to trial. One, in particular, is the Swedish case headed by Thunberg. She and a cohort of 600 young activists known as Aurora filed a lawsuit against the Swedish government, alleging that it had not taken sufficient action to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as required by the European Convention on Human Rights. Recently, the Swedish court decided to move forward with the class action lawsuit against the Swedish government, citing "inadequate climate policies." While cases are starting to achieve success and move toward trial, the slow pace of the legal system remains a major obstacle to making substantial strides in combating this global problem.

Despite both political and legal actions being taken around the world, it is still not enough. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are failing miserably in our efforts to address it. How much longer are we going to wait for genuine change? I feel ashamed for letting others fight my fight. Many young people like me, especially on our campus, superficially support and symbolically advocate but do not put in real effort to make the serious changes that are necessary. We are afraid to be uncomfortable, afraid to challenge the status quo. 

A group of McMaster University students held an eight-day hunger strike to get the university to divest from fossil fuels. One of the hunger strikers, Mila Py said, "I am scared to do this, but I am more scared not to." And she’s right: I am scared to upend the status quo, but I’m more scared of what will happen if I don’t. During my time at UR, I haven’t been radical or an avid protestor, but I recognize that we, as students, need to change in order for the system to change. If we aren’t advocating for divestment, why would the university divest? I’m not saying I have the answers, or even a path to follow. But I do know something, we must start somewhere, and that’s recognizing our fear of being uncomfortable. In recognizing our vulnerability we can begin to change ourselves and then the system that we’ve accepted for too long. How long are we going to wait to see the change our generation needs to survive?

Contact contributor Taylor McKie at taylor.mckie@richmond.edu. 

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