June 22, 2024

Nathan Baring is a thirdgeneration Alaskan and climate activist. He is also a plaintiff in Juliana v United States, a lawsuit brought by 21 young Americans who say the US government “willfully ignored” the dangers of burning fossil fuels, which violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, and failed to protect public trust resources. If successful, the case could result in a declaration that the nation’s pro-fossil fuel policies are unconstitutional, which the plaintiffs hope could lead to policy changes.

The case, first filed in 2015, has faced numerous obstacles, including a dismissal in 2020 by a US court of appeals. The plaintiffs’ lawyers amended their case, and in June a federal judge in Oregon ruled the lawsuit can finally proceed to trial. A date has not yet been set.

In August, a Montana judge issued a landmark ruling in favor of youth plaintiffs who brought a similar climate lawsuit against the Montana government. Yet Juliana still faces an uphill battle.

The Biden administration said the Montana ruling should have no bearing on Juliana. But Baring told the Guardian in November he still thinks the lawsuit could succeed.

Baring, who in his day job works with Native reindeer herders, spoke with the Guardian about the Montana ruling, the Juliana case and the state of youth-led climate suits. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you become aware of the climate crisis?

My mom was born and raised in Homer, a small fishing community on the south-central coast of Alaska. My grandparents moved there before statehood back in the 50s. We’ve been here for a while, though that’s nothing whatsoever compared to Native communities.

It’s incredible the changes that have happened within my lifetime. When I was growing up, it used to be very normal to have two-week periods of 40-below temperatures during the winter. Now it seems like it’s rare that we get those temperatures at all.

As a Nordic skier and as someone who grew up in Fairbanks, I see it’s become so much milder and wetter. The permafrost just continues to melt year over year.

How did you get involved in climate organizing? Tell me a little bit about your political journey.

When I was 12, I wrote my first letter to the editor. Fairbanks’ winter air pollution sometimes rivals that of Beijing because we have a really high concentration of wood-burning stoves. My parents were gonna pull me out of soccer – I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose my sports!” So my letter was about the issue of wood smoke.

When I was 12 or 13, I attended some climate-science discussions at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. It freaked me out.

At that point, I got involved in an organization called Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, and we lobbied on state-level issues like sustainable fisheries.

Julia Olson, the head lawyer for the Juliana case, reached out to my organization. I hadn’t even quite started my sophomore year in high school. It’s been quite a journey since then!

You’re the only Juliana plaintiff from Alaska. Could you tell me a little bit about what that’s like?

The organizations I was part of growing up were almost exclusively led by Indigenous organizers who always centered land sovereignty and climate justice. I realized that was kind of unique when I kind of got into the broader climate movement. But in Juliana, there are a number of plaintiffs who are Indigenous and grew up with much more of that cultural background than I did as a white person.

I also have a keen focus on labor justice, because Alaska is probably the most oil-dependent state in the nation. The state is largely paid for by taxes on the oil industry. And it’s been really painful to see how that gives the industry a chokehold on our state politics since long before I was born.

I have friends that don’t believe in climate change. I have friends who work in the oil industry. I work with herders who work for the oil industry or have family members who do. But the issue is really not that people don’t believe in climate change. It’s that they’ve been given no vision for a future without oil. It’s a very fear-based response.

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Alaska, West Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, these states have been – not to sound crass – the resource bucket for the rest of the nation. If we’re going to, as a collective population of Americans and the world, move beyond that, we have to be there for the states that have not seen, in decades, any economic diversion away from fossil fuels.

We recently saw a landmark victory for youth climate suits out of Montana, which like Alaska is a fossil fuel-rich red state. What did you make of the Montana victory?

I have the privilege of knowing the plaintiffs in that case. I was absolutely thrilled for them. They really got to make history.

Young people raise their fists as they arrive at court.
Youth plaintiffs in the Held v Montana climate lawsuit on 20 June 2023, in Helena, Montana, for the final day of the trial. A Montana judge sided with them on 14 August. Photograph: Thom Bridge/AP

This win in a state like Montana, which is, in a lot of ways, economically similar to Alaska, it’s especially exciting. It didn’t just come from a state where you might stereotypically expect more favorable rulings, right? It came from a state with a really rich coal industry.

What are possible ramifications beyond Montana?

The Montana case really emphasized the incredible importance of a trial. When it came to putting climate denial on the witness stand, the state’s case fell flat on its face, and it was painfully clear to everyone! We need that kind of sunlight.

To tie it back to Juliana: if Biden administration officials actually get put on a witness stand, their records will be up for display. We’ll actually have to see, what does it actually mean when you say, “I’m such a great climate president, but I’m also developing oil projects all across the world”?

Juliana could go to trial sometime soon. How are you feeling about that prospect?

I mean, it’s been eight years of pushing for a trial.

I sunk to quite a low in February 2020, when the Juliana case was dismissed. And then boom, March 2020, was the beginning of Covid. I had to de-center a lot of my own grief and big feelings about climate change. It’s like that famous quote: “Hope is a discipline.” I really took that to heart.

Still, it would be nice to finally have a trial! In a funny way, the longer we’ve waited, the stronger we’ve become. The evidence of climate change is so clear now. The longer we’ve waited, the more we’ve been vindicated.

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