In many ways, 10-year-old Levi Draheim is your typical Florida Space Coast kid. His hair and skin are sun-kissed. He’d rather be outdoors than in. Every moment possible is spent in the ocean. “It helps me calm down,” he explains, and you can hear the longing to be done with the questions and back at play.
What sets Draheim apart from the other kids on Satellite Beach, the barrier island he calls home just south of Cape Canaveral, and what separates him from millions of other American children, is the fact that he is suing the United States.
Draheim is the youngest plaintiff in a landmark piece of United States climate litigation, Juliana v. U.S. The case, first filed in U.S. District Court in 2015, is expected to go to trial before U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken in Oregon this summer. At its center are Draheim and twenty other Gen Z plaintiffs from across the country asking the court to mandate that the U.S. government reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million by 2100. They allege that by knowingly contributing to climate change for more than fifty years, the U.S. government has violated their Fifth Amendment constitutional right not to be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and the public trust doctrine, which holds the government responsible for the protection and maintenance of shared natural resources.
“We’re telling them the adults haven’t really stepped up and started doing things to help protect the environment,” Draheim says. “We can’t vote, so being part of this lawsuit is another way in helping things to protect the environment.”
Should the Juliana plaintiffs win their suit, the U.S. government would be required to develop and implement a climate recovery plan with the goal of stabilizing climate change and its impact by 2100, when Draheim would be 92.
For now, Draheim is just a kid taking on a very public role in a complex debate about who holds responsibility for protecting the environment for future generations. Local, national, and international news organizations have all come calling. He has protested in Washington, D.C., and spoken in front of the Brevard County Democrats. He is an activist, and it’s not a role he takes lightly.
Climate change is personal for Draheim. The Atlantic Ocean is five minutes from his front door, and he sees it rising. He’s interested in “the science part” of how warming waters and pollution play into the suffocating, brown algae growth in the nearby Indian River Lagoon. He knows it’s important to sound as knowledgeable as possible when speaking—to adults, in particular—about climate change. Certain legal particulars of the suit might be above his head, but he has a good grasp of its basics and stays current on its progress through regular Skype calls with the volunteer legal team and his fellow plaintiffs. Anything he doesn’t understand, he discusses with his mother, Leigh-Ann.
“He’s actually very passionate about it,” she says. “His current choice is a book called The Science of Climate Change, and it’s all about molecules and very chemistry-oriented. He makes a point of learning all about it, even when he doesn’t have to. It’s just kind of how we live.”
How the Draheims live is what inspired them to get involved with Juliana v. U.S. in the first place. They are a family of grassroots environmentalists who attend the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard in West Melbourne. That’s where they met the Rev. Dr. Gregory Wilson, an organizer with the UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE), an environmental justice group based on the Seventh Principle’s respect for the interdependent web of life.
Wilson told Leigh-Ann about the work of Oregon-based nonprofit Our Children’s Trust and its plans to sue the U.S. government to gain constitutional protection of the environment on behalf of young Americans. The group was looking for a kid from Florida to join minors from Oregon, New York, Alaska, and Hawaii in the suit. Levi Draheim, who regularly plants sea oats, cleans up beaches, and is homeschooled using a sustainable-environment curriculum, seemed the perfect fit.
“My mom asked me if I would like to be part of it,” Draheim says. “I said yeah. I found it really cool that there was other kids involved.”
His mom also thought the idea was cool, but she had concerns. At the time, her son was 7. How would participating impact his life long term? Before she talked to her son, the UUMFE put her in touch with Meg Ward, Our Children’s Trust’s youth engagement director, who walked her through the case, its precedents, and the role of its plaintiffs.
Draheim and his fellow plaintiffs are waiting for their day in U.S. District Court. A second petition by the U.S. Department of Justice to dismiss the case was denied by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2018. (The first was denied in November 2016.) All signs point to the case moving to trial before the end of the year.
Few people in Satellite Beach seem aware of the role their 10-year-old neighbor and his family are playing in the global climate-change conversation, but broader public support for the plaintiffs and their case is strong. Amicus briefs—from legal scholars and religious, women’s, libertarian, and environmental groups, including Oregon UU Voices For Justice and the Climate Justice Committee of the UU Fellowship of Corvallis—were filed on their behalf. The UUMFE called on congregations to discuss the case and its implications during their 2018 Earth Day services.
Draheim is steadfast in believing he’s doing the right thing, not just for himself, but for the millions of other American kids—and their future grandchildren.
“I hope that even if we don’t win this lawsuit that it will raise awareness to other people and other youth so they know that they can do things,” he says. “Even though we’re just some kids, we can make a change, even if we can’t vote. We probably are going to win this lawsuit, though, because it’s kind of hard to argue against science.”
Updated 5/8/18: Earlier versions of this story, including the one in the Summer 2018 print edition, misspelled Judge Ann Aiken’s first name. The description of Juliana v. U.S. has been expanded to clarify the allegation that the government has knowingly contributed to climate change for fifty years.