Fair or exploitative? Environmental groups using kids as plaintiffs

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In their battle against fossil fuels, environmental organizations have long used the courts to achieve what they can't win in the marketplace.

But in an increasing number of recent lawsuits, those organizations are employing a new twist: Using kids as plaintiffs.

Eugene, Ore.-based Our Children's Trust has been one of the driving forces behind a series of lawsuits in various states with children acting as plaintiffs, some as young as 8 years old.

"We wanted to support young people in engaging in democracy because many of them can't vote," said Julia Olson, the organization's executive director, an attorney and mother of two. "One principal way for them to take action with their government is to bring cases in court and to petition rule-making bodies like agencies at the state level to enact rules to limit carbon emissions."

But while the strategy has been greeted with cheers in the green movement, the use of what Olson calls "youth plaintiffs" has generated criticism in other quarters.

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    "This step towards having kids (file lawsuits) is just a way to make it more emotional and more political and less challenging to where the science is," said Jim Steele, an ecologist and self-described climate skeptic who spent 25 years as the director of the San Francisco State University Sierra Nevada Field Campus, considered one of California's leading environmental education centers.

    "To me, you're not trying to prove the science one way or the other," Steele said. "You're trying to push a political agenda and get people to be liable to what I think is fear-mongering."

    And the instances of children as lead plaintiffs is growing.

    Just last week, a group of 21 kids -- 11 from Oregon and 10 from other states -- filed a lawsuit against President Obama and the federal government, saying the nation's political leaders "have violated and are violating Plaintiffs' fundamental constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by causing dangerous CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and dangerous government interference with a stable climate system."

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