NM Teen Sues State to Limit Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Mar 30, 2012

Not too many teenagers have the option to write a college essay entitled “How I Sued the Governor.” But Akilah Sanders-Reed, from Sandia Park, is not like most teenagers.

She’s one of a handful of students around the country trying to fight the very modern problem of climate change with the help of a very old law.  KUNM’s Sidsel Overgaard recently met with Sanders-Reed in the Bosque and has this report.

At age 17, Akilah Sanders-Reed has done far more thinking about climate change than most adults. She speaks with eerie calm about “floods, hurricanes, droughts- all the things that are going to be lost” and the day in New Mexico when the water disappears and people start packing their bags. When she wonders about the future it’s not in terms of fortune and fame but in terms of whether she’ll be one of the ones leaving or ones who stay back to help.

“Cause I think as with almost any issue, it’s usually the people who have less of a voice and who have less political and financial power who are going to be the most effected and, you know, I certainly wouldn’t be able to just stand by and watch things fall apart. Ironic, maybe, that someone who can’t vote sees herself as having political power but when it comes to climate change, says Sanders-Reed, age is a trump card. “I think that the youngest generation has the moral authority to stand up and say we don’t want that and to build a different future.”

And that’s why she’s suing. I recently became the plaintiff on a lawsuit against Governor Martinez and the state of New Mexico asking the atmosphere be part of the public trust for New Mexico. “The public trust doctrine is an ancient common law doctrine” That’s attorney Samantha Ruscavage-Barz with WildEarth Guardians. “It traces its roots back to the emperor Justinian. It can also be traced back to the kings of England and this idea that the state was the entity that held the natural resources in trust for the public” In the U.S. the doctrine as first acknowledged in an 1892 Supreme Court case. Since then its been used to protect navigable waters.

Now Sanders-Reed and about a dozen other students around the country have filed lawsuits against their states and one in federal court arguing that it should apply to the atmosphere as well. “And if the state recognizes the atmosphere as a trust resource then that means the state has to prevent substantial impairment to that resource. If successful the lawsuit would require New Mexico to assess the affect of current carbon emissions on the atmosphere then make a plan for mitigation and prevention of further harm. Of all the cases filed, New Mexico’s has made it farthest. In January the judge in the case offered Sanders-Reed and her lawyer to amend and resubmit their suit. They did and now they’re just waiting-a frustrating activity for someone seeing evermore signs of climate change.

“I definitely have days when I wish it could just happen you know over night but I know that that’s not possible and that we’ve set up an incredible judiciary system that allows people like me who don’t have a vote who don’t have a voice in any other branch of government to be able to do this and I know that in the long run this will be a huge help if it actually goes through” A help but not the solution. Sanders-Reed said that will require a seismic shift. “It’s not just going to be about turning out light bulbs and buying Prius’. We have to change the way we think. We have to change the mentality and the culture so that we value future generations as much as we value profits today and I think people are really starting to wake up to the fact that we need to shift the entire way we live and I think it’s possible.

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