Even before Greta Thunberg began her Fridays for Future school strikes to raise global awareness of the climate emergency, 21 American tweens and teenagers joined a movement to protect the environment. In 2015, the activists filed Juliana v. United States, arguing that U.S. fossil-fuel policies and practices violate present and future generations’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, health, and safety. Elizabeth Rusch introduces the young activists in her new book, The 21: The True Story of the Youth Who Sued the U.S. Government Over Climate Change. Rusch watched the 21 plaintiffs grow up as the federal and related state cases slowly wended their way through the courts. On August 14 of this year, a Montana judge ruled on behalf of youth plaintiffs in a state public trust case; another trial gets under way in Hawaii in June 2024. Rusch spoke with PW about environmental reckonings, unresolved chapters, and writing what she describes as a nonfiction legal thriller with a diverse “ensemble cast.”
How did your interest in Juliana v. United States turn into a YA book proposal?
Juliana v. United States was filed in 2015, and the very next year, 2016, one of my kids took a road trip with some middle school classmates to attend one of the hearings in Eugene, Ore. I saw the case through her eyes, and my thinking changed from, “It’s great that youth activists are getting their voices heard” to “Wow, these 21 could make a huge difference on climate change.”
In June 2019, there was a hearing before the Ninth Circuit in Portland, Oregon, where I live. I went and brought my notebook, even though I didn’t know what I was going to write. I watched the lead lawyer, Julia Olson, make the case, and I went to a rally where the youth plaintiffs spoke. It was a powerful, important moment, and I began to think seriously about writing a book. This legal principle—that we can’t have life, liberty, and property without a stable climate—was so compelling.
Once the plaintiffs filed a new motion that would reopen a path to trial [the Ninth Circuit had dismissed the case in 2020], I wrote the proposal and my editor Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow snatched it up. I dove in headfirst: interviewing the lawyers and the kids, reading the transcripts, listening to hearings.
How did you organize the chapters and ensure that young readers could follow this complicated narrative?
One of the first things I did was to get a giant foam-core board, and I used different colored cards to put everything in chronological order. What grabbed me most were the youths’ stories of how they were affected by climate change. Sahara Valentine and Isaac Vergun are both athletes who suffer from asthma and whose lives have been endangered by wildfire smoke. Levi Draheim has been evacuated twice from his Florida home by the severe hurricanes that are kicked up by global warming. Jayden Foytlin and her sibling were stranded and sickened by rising waters from the torrential downpours and freak floods in Louisiana, caused by a warming climate.
I also wanted young readers to know how the 21 got involved in taking on the U.S. government, and how they changed and grew through their involvement. There were so many emotional challenges: all the excitement leading up to the trial, how the kids coped when the rug was pulled out from under them, how they stood up to fight again. I had to figure out not just the arc of the trial, but all these other arcs.
When I started weaving it together, I tried to use the tools of a fiction writer. I wanted to give the sense of a legal thriller, where you care about the people but you’re also on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen.
You say that you wanted to center the youths’ stories. How did you develop the plaintiffs as individual characters?
I mean, these youths are both so ordinary and so extraordinary, right? I didn't have to do anything to make them human and likeable. Sahara was shy at the beginning and feels compelled to speak out. Levi [who joined the case at age eight] is like a little brother with a huge personality, and Miriam [Oommen] is so desperate to make change that she ties herself to train tracks and shipping piers, gets arrested, and further endangers her future. They’re all struggling with climate change within the context of everyday lives.
I also see this as David and Goliath. These young people have the biggest goal possible, saving our planet, and they face an incredibly powerful opponent, the U.S. government. Their lawyer is kind of a small-town environmental lawyer who manages to pull together a talented group of attorneys to bring these cases. [I asked myself], how do I get out of the way and let that story come forward?
This story is ongoing, with state cases undecided and Juliana v. United States pending trial. What was it like to write a book in which closure is so elusive?
Writing a timely book is both really satisfying and really harrowing. Once I got the contract and I started writing and doing the interviews, there was a hearing in June 2021 [in which the plaintiffs asked U.S. district judge Ann Aiken for a declaratory judgment that our fossil fuel-based energy system is unconstitutional]. After listening to the hearing, I was really hopeful that the judge was going to rule in the kids’ favor, and I wanted the book to end on that positive note.
But the ruling doesn’t come for a year and a half. We were moving through editing, copy editing, design, we were settling on the pagination to do the index. We decided to figure out how many pages we wanted for the ruling, leave those pages blank, and hope that gave a little emotional gut punch and a feeling of what waiting is like. We’d have a link to the ruling in the new chapter when it was done. We’d committed to that, and on June 1, 2023, the judge ruled in the kids’ favor. I had to re-interview some of the youth, the lawyers, read all the stuff, write a chapter, and revise a couple of the chapters to flow smoothly.
I feel like I could keep revising forever, because it’s so current and so important right now. I think this powerful approach to addressing climate change is not going away—in fact, it's just getting started. I feel so honored to be able to tell the story at this moment. In some ways the timing couldn’t be worse, and in some ways it couldn’t be better.
The 21: The True Story of the Youth Who Sued the U.S. Government Over Climate Change by Elizabeth Rusch. Greenwillow, $19.99 Sept. 26 ISBN 978-0-06-322085-0