Building off the efforts of previous generations of activists, the fight for climate change assumes new vigour in the youth of today. Where some youth activists like Greta Thunberg use their platforms to sound rallying cries for action, the young subjects of Christ Cooper’s Youth v Gov take the spotlight to challenge the inaction of a government that has the power to affect change, but chooses to ignore the science and warning bells. By suing complacent politicians in power in the U.S., the young activists hope to awaken more people to the immediate consequences of climate change to which they turn a blind eye. The spark of one generation assumes a new flame in another.
Christi Cooper’s debut feature Youth v Gov follows 21 young plaintiffs, ranging from ages eight to 19, over the course of five years as they sue the federal government of the United States. The basis of their lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, is, in simple terms, that the U.S. is well aware of the encroaching threat of climate change and has an obligation to act in order to leave the younger generation with their constitutional right, which is to have a habitable planet.
The film, which was a runner-up for the Audience Award at DOC NYC earlier this year, charts the ups and downs of this bold and unprecedented undertaking, as the looming climate clock ticks louder and louder and we watch the kids grow older and older. From the courthouses to the forests of Oregon, Youth v Gov observes the teens and children both in their natural habitat and out of it. Cooper conveys how real the threat of climate change feels for them–the stakes are immediate and urgent.
The science of movie-making
Cooper came to filmmaking equipped with a M.S. in microbiology and a PhD in neuroscience. Her subsequent MFA thesis was titled “Contemporary Advocacy Filmmaking: Campaigns for Change,” which led her to co-create projects like the documentary series Stories of Trust: Calling for Climate Recovery. The series introduced her to some of the subjects that would later star in Youth v Gov.
“I always had in my mind that it would be interesting to tell a longer story about climate litigation, but the opportunity hadn’t really presented itself,” said Cooper, speaking with POV. “When these kids won their first day in court in March of 2016, that was the moment for me when I thought, this case might be going somewhere. This could be actually an interesting story to follow.’”
So began a production that spanned half a decade and a number of legal obstacles for the landmark case. The young plaintiffs hailed from Florida to Oregon, so Cooper spent a lot of time travelling and collecting fragments of their case. When it came time to stitch the story together, she was confronted with an almost overwhelming amount of material.
“It was a struggle for other people to see the vision that I had and how what some people saw as three different films could be woven together into one story,” Cooper said. But a shape began to emerge. Cooper and her team realized that the film could be organized into the three elements of standing that the case needed to succeed. It would even fit neatly into a three-act structure.
“The three elements of standing are showing that you’re harmed, showing that the person that you’re suing has harmed you, and showing that the court can address that and provide a remedy,” said Cooper.
Time for change
The film illustrates how the natural environments that these kids grew up in are becoming more and more unstable. Cooper shows how climate change disrupts their lives.
Levi, who, at eight years old, was the youngest plaintiff when the lawsuit was filed, is seen evacuating his home like a pro during a hurricane. (It’s the second time he’s had to flee his Florida island house within a year.) Jayden, whose home flooded in Louisiana, was scarred by the experience and dreads a future where natural disasters become more frequent, as the research quoted in the film suggests.
Wildfires threaten forests that used to be the playgrounds of children like Levi and Jayden and droughts cripple their family farms, which sustain livelihoods. While the threat of climate change isn’t tangible enough for political leaders to take the bold action these kids want, the plaintiffs feel the heat and are afraid. With a determined glint in their collective eye, they advocate for their adult selves.
“My intent has always been to inspire, provide a platform for, and elevate the voices of young people,” said Cooper. “I think they bring the moral authority to the story and to the future that they want to see.”
Skirting skeptics, spotlighting youth
Youth v Gov is both a documentary and a kind of superhero movie. Cooper does not shy away from casting an awe-struck gaze on the group of young people she clearly admires. The kids are the heroes of the film–not world-weary–and with strong, newly minted moral compasses. It makes sense, then, that the film is about youth, and for youth. Cooper, like the lawyers arguing the young plaintiffs’ case in court, seek to inspire more young activists to join the fight.
While the film limits its focus to the plaintiffs of the case to underscore the unprecedented nature of the lawsuit, it observes the conflict between the young activists and their parents or elders who don’t believe in climate change. (As with other hyper-focused youth-oriented projects like I Am Greta, it doesn’t give fair credit to the campaigns that inspired past and present activists.) It shows how one generation uses family relationships to convince deniers of climate change in ways that previous campaigns have not. Several moments in which the kids are confronted by nonbelievers are among the most valuable scenes in the whole film. One of the teen plaintiffs, Vic Barrett (now 21), has a difficult conversation with his father following his high school graduation.
“I’m happy that my dad is here. He doesn’t really believe in climate change,” Vic says with a tinge of sadness in the film. The two sit down for a conversation in the park afterwards.
“I wish the urgency was explained a little better,” replies Vic’s dad, Kevin, as the two go back and forth on whether it is within the government’s jurisdiction to act on something like climate control, and the challenges of moving a lawsuit through the courts with Trump in power.
While Vic’s father is fairly open-minded and game for these types of conversations, not all the kids are so lucky. Jayden Foytlin, who was a tween at the time, tears up while explaining that her involvement in the lawsuit ended her strongest friendship. Her friend Madison’s mom cut off all connections between her and Jayden. However, she builds new relationships with the plaintiffs and activists involved in the case.
Cooper’s storytelling does not linger on those who need convincing to join the kids’ fight. She remains laser-focused on the energy and hope that flourishes in this unique group of young people under this empowering circumstance.
“I hope the film allows people to understand that young people have a lot of power, that they have a voice and their voice matters,” says Cooper. “They are not a disenfranchised group amongst us.”
Here comes the revolution
While the legal battle at the heart of the film has its victories, it also brings moments of defeat. The most high-stakes and devastating blow comes at the end, when two of the three judges shoot down their case, ruling that the court does not have the power to intervene in the matter they presented.
“I don’t understand the full implications of this right now, but it feels like a death,” sobs the case’s namesake plaintiff, Kelsey Juliana, now 24, upon receiving the news. “It feels very scary.”
The film nevertheless remains hopeful and asks its young viewers to hold on to hope. It focuses on how one of the three judges wrote a fiery statement of dissent, siding with the group that has come to be known as the “climate kids.”
“The government accepts as fact that the United States has reached a tipping point, crying out for a concerted response yet presses ahead towards calamity,” wrote Judge Josephine Staton. “It is as if an asteroid were barrelling towards Earth and the government decided to shut down our only defenses.”
Time will tell if this warning has fallen on deaf ears but the kids heard it, loud and clear, and with their voice to amplify it, it might be heard. Similar youth-driven environmental movements are cropping up across the world, and the film points to other instances of children suing the government, even in Canada. Across the world, young people are capturing the hearts and attention of a greater audience.
The most common criticism of the youth climate movement, and in turn, the film, is an accusation that the kids are being put up to it somehow, or that they are not capable of doing something this big, this young. Cooper hopes that by introducing audiences to each young person on a personal, human level, people will see the fire in their eyes and come to understand their motivations.
“I think it’s very impactful to hear what these young people are saying, and what they stand for, and what feels hurtful to them,” says Cooper. “I can’t imagine my daughter telling me that something is the most important thing in the world to her and that I wouldn’t care about that.”