“My kids might only get to know of snow through motion pictures,” says Kelsey Juliana, one of the young activists at the heart of “Youth vs. Gov,” already thinking about the generation after hers in more ways than one. In Christi Cooper’s film about a most improbable lawsuit in which Juliana’s the lead plaintiff, it’s fitting that Juliana refers to a movie being the only way to see something that was once a common occurrence as she worries that the havoc wreaked by climate change will incontrovertibly deprive what once could be expected with regularity in her native Oregon when “Youth Vs. Gov” itself will remind audiences of the power of activism, from those who have been discouraged in the belief that nothing ever changes to those as young as its heroes for whom this will be a strong introduction.
It’s a question as to whether anyone else who actually needs to see “Youth Vs. Gov” actually will when it appeals primarily to those who are already alarmed by the growing threats of inclement weather, but nonetheless Cooper makes the most of a case filed in 2015 where a group of teens and slightly younger joined together in a constitutional lawsuit against the U.S. for actively undermining the rights they had as American citizens through deregulation and opening up federal land for oil exploration and fracking, destroying their ability to live a healthy life. Despite anyone’s expectations, the suit was approved for trial and although the government files numerous motions to delay, “Youth Vs. Gov” lays out a compelling case outside of court as it profiles several of the plaintiffs from various parts of the country who are impacted by climate change in different ways, from Jaime, a member of Navajo Nation whose land in Arizona is being ravaged by drought, to Jayden, born and bred in the Louisiana bayou where the BP oil spill has continued to pollute the ecosystem.
Certainly, the novelty of the plaintiffs’ youth addressing an issue as abstract as climate change through the courts is exploited as much as possible to grab attention, first by their lead attorney Julia Olson, who runs the organization Our Children’s Trust, and by extension, Cooper, but these kids are hardly naive and as Juliana and others point out over the course of “Youth vs. Gov,” the legal recourse becomes the strongest possible expression of their beliefs in a fractious democracy. Rather than looking towards a verdict in court, they realize the case is an engine for achieving a number of goals outside of it, giving media around the world an obvious hook to cover stories of climate change and capitalizing on any progress in the courts to convince more people to join the cause. Even with “Youth vs. Gov” counting itself as part of that aim, it becomes valuable as a chronicle of making progress on major issues when it has become all but impossible inside institutions.
The failures of both Republican and Democrat-led administrations in combating climate change is comprehensively outlined, but in showing how many times these concerns have been raised since the 1970s only to be quickly dismissed, “Youth vs. Gov” proves moving in seeing a number of the government officials that once came forward such as Mike MacCracken and Dr. James Hansen live to find their warnings have have newfound weight with a new generation, particularly in the case of Nicky Sundt, an employee of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and Congressional Office of Technology Assessment that kept boxes of government documents in the basement of her house that were never digitized and now are used as evidence of a history of environmental neglect. By putting the case of Juliana vs. the U.S. Government on the record, “Youth vs. Gov” will likely be considered similarly significant documentation down the line.