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What is a Youth Climate and Human Rights Court?

Youth Climate and Human Rights Courts, a new human rights initiative developed over the past 18 months, is designed specifically for young climate leaders of high school and college age who are looking for ways to forcefully press their governments to take action on the climate crisis.

The Youth Climate Courts website describes how young climate leaders can conduct their own Climate and Human Rights Court – with a youth judge, youth prosecutors and youth jury members – and put their city or county government publicly on trial for inadequately protecting the human rights of their citizens. The climate crisis threatens to directly undermine citizens’ rights to life, security of person, liberty, health, water and a healthy environment, among others, and governments bear a primary responsibility to protect their citizens’ rights.

The youth prosecutor’s argument will not be complicated:

If a fundamental responsibility of governments is to secure people’s rights – “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men,” says the US Declaration of Independence – and if climate change threatens to undermine those rights, then governments have a primary responsibility to do everything they can to help mitigate the worst climate effects and to develop plans to adapt to what experts tell us is coming.

It’s no wonder that young people feel anxious about the climate crisis and how it will impact their lives, and it’s no wonder that so many feel they have no voice and can do nothing to bring about change. Now, though, there is a way that any group of young people can create their own Youth Climate Court and can put their city or county government publicly on trial for failing to protect their citizens’ (especially children’s) human and constitutional rights. 

The Youth Climate and Human Rights Court process begins by issuing a summons (in person and in writing) to the city or county government, announcing the upcoming public Youth Court trial and urging the government to send a representative to the trial to explain the government’s point of view and to defend its interests.

The trial is then conducted on the appointed day, presided over by a youth judge, with arguments, evidence and witnesses presented by youth attorneys, and with the verdict decided by the deliberations and vote of youth jury members.

If the government is found guilty of failing to protect people’s rights, the Youth Climate Court “retains jurisdiction” and requires local government officials to prepare a strong Climate Action Plan and submit it to the Youth Climate Court for approval by a given date. 

While Youth Courts do not have legal authority to formally compel change, what they do have is the moral authority of those who are being most directly wronged. Young people have more moral authority on this issue today than do the many adult institutions that have been so slow to recognize and address it. 

These Youth Climate and Human Rights Courts offer young people a powerful public voice to effect real change in their governments and communities, partly through shame and partly through inspiration, by publicly calling local governments to account and requiring them to change.

For further information and How-to details, see the youthclimatecourts.org website.