This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on April 4, 2018. Alexandra Cohen and Talia Fox contributed to the production of this story.
Jacob Lebel is a 21 year old activist from Roseburg, Oregon, a farmer, and a plaintiff in the case, Juliana v. United States. This is Jacob's story:
“I’m from Roseburg, Oregon. I was homeschooled as a kid. I had three or four hours of school a day and the rest of the day was spent on our farm. In the mornings, I would get up and do small chores—like feeding the dogs and cats—and then I would have breakfast. After that, I went outside for a long walk, for about an hour or two, to feed all the other animals. It was amazing any time of year except when it was two degrees Celsius outside, raining and super muddy everywhere. On the walk, I gathered eggs and let all the birds out. We had turkeys, quail, ducks, and geese. We had cows, horses, and pigs. After that, I came home to do school for three or four hours. I read enormous amounts in the afternoons, and played outside in the creeks. I was very privileged to grow up in an environment like that. That type of childhood is only going to become harder as climate change erodes basic, life-supporting ecosystems.
I liked the harmony and unity of the farm and how all the parts work together. We decided to keep about 75% of the farm as a natural reserve. We only farm 25% of the 600-acre land. The forest is 50 year old regrowth from clearcutting, but we are continually thinning it out to slowly bring it back to old growth spacing. The trees aren’t all packed together anymore. It’s a very lush, West Coast rainforest with moss and ferns, and multiple creeks running through it. Being in the forest and playing by the creeks were a huge part of my childhood.
The farm is still a huge part of my life. I am on a gap year from college, and I’m working with my dad around the farm doing tile work, plumbing, and construction. This is different from what I did in my childhood and early teens, when I was in charge of all the animals and gardens and had a community-supported agriculture (CSA) business. We do our best to build up the farm in a sustainable and ethical way.
An Inconvenient Truth is a 2006 documentary about Former Vice President Al Gore's work to educate people about climate change.
You can watch the award-winning documentary here.
I heard of climate change for the first time when I watched An Inconvenient Truth at age nine. Even though I grew up with a no-plastic mentality, and values of preserving biodiversity, local organic farming, and the wilderness, I didn’t relate my childhood to climate change. I watched the movie and it became matter-of-fact what was happening. It gave climate change immediacy and sparked my interest in what is going on at a governmental level. It connected climate change to politics and government, and made it clear that it’s important who we put in office. I thought, ‘This is horrific.’
At first, I thought about climate change in global terms. It’s much easier to see changes happening on a global scale: extreme temperatures, and species going extinct, dying out. You see specialized ecosystems eradicated. It took me longer to understand how I’m affected locally.
There’s a lot of insecurity surrounding the farm and what’s actually going to happen. Wildfires, droughts, and heatwaves impact the farm. According to research, we’re going to get a lot more drought and heat waves during the summer. Everything is going to become more intense. There’s going to be less snowmelt, which also means less water for the rivers. We’ve been talking about how maybe we should buy more land in Canada. Insecurity comes when things are changing so rapidly.
"As temperatures have warmed over the past century, the prevalence and duration of drought has increased in the American West" (Union of Concerned Scientists).
"Increased temperatures will lead to more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, earlier snow melt, and increased evaporation and transpiration, thus the risk of drought increases as temperatures rise" (Union of Concerned Scientists).
"Wildfires in the western United States have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s, occurring nearly four times more often, burning more than six times the land area, and lasting almost five times as long" (Union of Concerned Scientists).
We had a big drought at the end of last year and this year. The Douglas fir and pines here in Southern Oregon are especially affected by the drought. On one of the hills that I can see from the farm, more than two-thirds of the firs are dead. There are patches of dark and dark green, but the rest is brown or red-brown. And it shouldn’t be like that because they are evergreen trees.
Then there’s a wildfire risk. In the past fire seasons, wildfires have been large and destructive, and have endangered lives along the West Coast. The 2015 wildfire season broke records. There were seven million acres along the West Coast burning. The wildfires burned close enough that we could see an immense cloud over the farm that we had never seen before. It was this huge, very unusual, cloud. It was very ominous. We didn’t know what it was at first. Wildfires have gotten worse and worse and more intense.
Look at what happened in Napa Valley, California, in the wine region. Entire businesses were wiped out and lost large parts of vines that had been growing for years. There was a normal community of people, houses, and businesses, and the next day, half of the businesses were gone. The ecosystems around it and around people's lives are completely changed now. That could happen to the farm. And it’s a toss-up. We don’t have the capacity right now to fight a wildfire. We are in a rural area on a little gravel road outside of town. Firefighters won’t come here to protect a huge property like this. So, at this point, it’s fate. We just don’t know.
Last summer, there were two weeks where it was so smoky we couldn’t see blue sky. That has never happened in my life. We always had a couple days of smoky air during the summer. This time, I didn’t notice how intense it was until it was dragging on and on, there were barely any days when it got lighter, and we couldn’t really see any blue sky. It crept up on us. Then it got really bad. It was so soupy that we couldn’t see trees that were a half mile away. We couldn’t see the hills around us. We’re in a valley, so we’re surrounded by big hills. We had to wear particle masks. It’s extremely bothersome on a farm. It’s scratchy. It’s hot. You have to take it off whenever you go in and out of the house. I started researching air conditioning filters that filter out smoke particles so that we could protect ourselves when we were inside.
Finally, I started to see blue sky again. I was so thankful. But, then I thought, ‘The way things are going, it’s probably going to be worse next year.’ I started wondering, ‘Is it going to last a month next year? How much smoke will we get? Will the wildfire be closer?’ Wildfires are a very immediate danger that could wipe out the entire farm. As they get more severe and common with climate change, the chance of our farm being in the burn area increases more and more every year.
At this point, with climate change, it’s about doing whatever we can, because there’s already some part that’s locked in. I am fortunate to be a young person who has a platform to talk about how climate change affects my life. That platform is Juliana versus the United States, a group of 21 young people (ages 9 to 22) that come from all over the United States, and represent its diversity of backgrounds and cultures. We are suing our government to demand a national science-based climate recovery plan. We want to tell the government to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 350 parts per million by 2100. Winning the case would result in a complete turnaround of our energy system in favor of technologies like renewables (and sustainable farming). It would involve fundamental change in government policy that takes climate change seriously.
A lot of people look up to us at this point, but we’re just normal young people. We are trying to live our lives in accordance with our values every day. I’ve been drawing inspiration from Brown v. Board of Education, which happened in a political environment unfavorable to desegregation. But, the court case changed the national conscience. The court stepped in and said, ‘There are rights being violated.’ That’s what we’re all hoping for.
"Juliana v. United States is a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit filed by young people in 2015. The lawsuit "asserts that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources" (Our Children's Trust).
There are three main pillars of our case. One is the climate science. We are bringing climate science into the courts where climate denial is perjury. Right now, politically, we’re seeing climate science completely butchered. There’s no regard for the truth or for scientific voices to be taken seriously. Within the courts, that’s not the case. Two, we are bringing the stories of the plaintiffs to American citizens, so that they can understand how climate change is affecting their children’s lives immediately and personally. Three, we are using the public trust doctrine, which holds that the government is a trustee of our land, air, and water. The land, air, and water are the basic building blocks of human civilization, and are not to be owned, infringed upon, or threatened by the government. That’s the basic idea. Those resources are not owned by the government. The government are trustees of them for the people. We want to put that into law by appealing to the constitution and the rights of ‘life, liberty, and property.’ Degradation of these natural resources and the problem of climate change threaten our constitutional rights.
I could not be luckier to be a part of this group. It’s amazing to be part of a group of young people who are so motivated, dynamic, and passionate. I look forward to whenever we get to see each other. There is this incredible feeling of being part of something moving forward in a positive fashion. The judges are agreeing with our core arguments and the case is moving forward. I love the way the judges take a really complex issue and cut through to the core of it with such clarity and often humor, and summarize it in a sentence or two. The plaintiffs and the legal team motivate me. Watching Julia, our lawyer, in court is something that everyone who cares about environmental law should do. She is able to present constitutional and legal arguments of grandeur, and make them understandable and clear.
Sometimes, if you find something you want to change in your community, the conditions aren’t there to get the chance to make change. But sometimes, the conditions are there. For me, the fact that the conditions are there means that I have to try to save as much of the environment as I can to ensure that we don’t live in a dystopian desert landscape where all the wild animals are gone, giraffes are extinct, and maybe only half of us are there. That is my motivation. I care about ensuring there’s a meaningful future for us.
Part of ensuring our future is speaking about it. My introduction to TV was basically being on it. I never grew up with it. It can be hard to get something meaningful across in an interview. It’s so stressful at first and TV anchors don’t care what you’re saying. It’s just one news bite. You don’t get to add nuance. My first interview was live on The Weather Channel. I had to sit through 15 minutes of advertisements before they introduced me. I was all keyed up and stressed out. All of the sudden, they’re like, ‘You’re on!’ When I’m asked on TV what people should do to get involved, I say, ‘Ensure that your vote counts. Not only your vote for a candidate, but also your vote in things that you buy (if your life condition allows you to vote with what you buy), what events you attend, and what you post on social media.’
The more in-depth answer is harder. It’s unique to each individual. It’s hard for me to know what the best way for someone else to get involved is. I was baptized Catholic and, in the Christian tradition, I relate to what we call vocation. Finding your path, vocation, is not something you suddenly find. It’s a process. But, climate change is a part of our society and our world, and I think that whenever people find their path, it will be tied up with climate change. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s farming, engineering, or being an artist, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find that it’s connected to climate change.
For example, farming, not agriculture, but actual farming, can help solve climate change, because everyone is struggling with food production. The way we eat, the way we think about food, is an enormous contributor to climate change. Just beef production is an enormous percentage of greenhouse gas emissions. Solving that, and understanding how that aspect of agriculture is situated within our lives, would solve a big part of climate change. In construction, the way we build on the farm is thoughtful. We build things to last 200 years. We use rock walls for foundation and lime cement. We salvage old growth, old logs that were put in rivers.
For me, it is important to meditate and dwell on the real things that are going to happen in the world, the groundbreaking things like extinction crises and degradation of the ecosystems, that we scroll over. I take the time for that to become emotionally real for me. It’s important to connect with these issues on a real level. Then, I ask, ‘What should I do? How can I help?’ I ask that over and over again, even if I don’t get an answer.
Don’t wait on being a part of something, or for something else to happen to you. Try to live out your own life in the best way possible in accordance with what you believe in. Amazing things can happen. I can testify.”
1) Share Jacob's story.
2) If you're in the Pacific Northwest: learn about the impacts of the proposed Jordan Cove project and the Pacific Connector Pipeline on Oregon communities and join the resistance: http://citizensagainstlng.com/wp/
3) Follow Jacob and other plaintiffs on social media: @youthvgov.
4) RSVP to the Facebook event for the trial.