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The Public Trust Doctrine and future generations: Young plaintiff challenges his peers at Climate Action Convention

“What are you going to do? You should know or at least figure it out. What are you going to do now to protect future generations?” Aji Piper, 17, Seattle, asked the audience.

A landmark lawsuit

As the keynote speaker at the day-long South Sound Climate Action Convention held in Lacey on Saturday, Piper posed the question to over 200 participants, including local officials and state legislators, but he wasn’t waiting around for an answer.

Piper is one of 21 youth suing the United States government in a landmark federal climate change related lawsuit, Juliana v. United States.

Following multiple rulings issued in favor of the youth plaintiffs and the organization supporting them, Our Children’s Trust, the US District Court for the District of Oregon earlier this week set October 29 as the first day of the trial. 
The trial will be held in Eugene and is being billed as the “trial of the century.”

Pursuing a solid course of action

Piper learned about climate change, ocean acidification, wildfires, deadly public health outbreaks and coal trains when he moved from Port Orchard, Washington to Seattle.

He wanted to do something about it all so he started planting trees and getting active in local protests. He co-founded Future Voters for 350 ppm.

“I should be able to be a kid…I needed to feel a stronger impact from my actions. I needed a solid course of action…so, I took them to court,” he said, as he explained his journey as a young climate activist.

In 2011, Piper was also a plaintiff in another youth-driven lawsuit demanding that the Washington State Department of Ecology update its emission regulations based on the latest climate science, saying the agency was required to do so through the Public Trust Doctrine, which says the government has a duty to protect natural resources for future generations.

Technically, he is the future, and while a strong ruling favored his case, nothing has happened to enforce it and the case has been refiled.

Violating the Public Trust Doctrine

The difference between the state and federal cases, he said, is that the federal government has known about the dangers of fossil fuel use and the destructive forces of climate change for about fifty years.

“By acting against that information, they have violated our rights and the Public Trust Doctrine.”

According to a press release from Our Children’s Trust, Juliana v. United States is not about the government’s failure to act on climate. Instead, the 21 young plaintiffs assert that the US government, through its affirmative actions in creating a national energy system that causes climate change, has violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources.

The case is one of many related legal actions brought by youth seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system.

Engaging youth in climate change conversations

The South Sound Climate Action Convention was held at the Lacey branch of South Puget Sound Community College and was organized by the Thurston Climate Action Team.

It featured a wide variety of speakers and presenters who geared their talks and workshops around climate change issues such as youth engagement, food sustainability, waste reduction, renewable energy technologies and options, carbon pricing initiatives and other legislative issues.

Aji Piper co-facilitated a morning workshop on how to engage youth in climate change conversations and related what actions and strategies work for him.

“Don’t make it boring, youth don’t want to sit in meetings…we sit enough at school. I didn’t get involved in climate change to stand outside of official buildings and shout….While those are tried and true approaches, and not to discredit those, but we’ve been doing those for years.”

Messaging on banners and bumper stickers

Piper related a 2009 campaign he liked which encouraged the Royal Bank of Canada to divest from the Alberta tar sands projects. The strategy of banners and bumper sticker messages with the one ultimately unfurled on the side of the bank that said, “Please help us Mrs.,” created buzz.

His comment encouraged workshop participants to generate a range of actions and ideas that included die-ins, music, the creative arts, light projections on buildings, and the creation of large puppetry.

Young people are ready to hear the truth

Olympia musician Holly Gwinn Graham strongly encouraged early childhood arts education in the school system.

“They are ready to be involved, to hear the truth. They’re ready to be creative and be part of something beautiful. It teaches kids to be politically active and use different forms of expression, encourages conversation, communication and intergenerational and non-familial connections with people,” she said.

Piper acknowledged that there is room for all kinds of artistic expression. 

“I grew up playing outside in the forest with my little brother and there’s a difference…it’s why I don’t do social media….I sing a lot. I get a song stuck in my head and start humming it, or my brother does. Singing and performing is different than speaking, just like poetry is different than an essay,” he said.

For more information about the South Sound Climate Action Convention and a list of participating organizations, go to

To learn more about the Thurston Climate Action Team, go to https:/

Janine Gates is a freelance journalist in Olympia and writes a news blog, Little Hollywood. This article was originally posted April 14, 2018 at  It was edited for Works in Progress and reprinted with permission.


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