This story was co-published with The Times-Picayune.
RAYNE, Louisiana—As far back as Jayden Foytlin can remember, her cousin Madison came over to celebrate her birthday. The girls had been best friends since they were toddlers and spent nearly every weekend together, playing video games and basketball in their driveways.
This year, things were different. In the weeks before Jayden’s 14th birthday, Madison’s mother stopped arranging get-togethers. She didn’t answer texts inviting Madison to Jayden’s birthday party. “We thought that maybe she was out of town with her family,” Jayden said. “Or I thought that maybe Madison had a sleepover the same day as my birthday.”
The text that cleared matters up came on the afternoon of Jayden’s birthday, as she and her family piled into their hybrid SUV to go roller skating. Madison’s mother wrote that her daughter wasn’t allowed to see Jayden anymore. She was keeping Madison away because Jayden is one of 21 young plaintiffs suing the federal government over its alleged failure to curtail fossil fuel development and address climate change.
“I don’t want nothing to do with children being in adult situations nor will any of our children,” said the text to Jayden’s mother, Cherri. “I think it’s pathetic that a young girl is even involved in something like this.”
The lawsuit, brought by Our Children’s Trust in 2015, relies on a novel legal strategy that has yielded victories for climate activists seeking sweeping policy change in other countries. The stakes are so high for the United States that both the Obama and Trump administrations, and the fossil fuel industry, have repeatedly sought to have the case dismissed. But federal judges have so far upheld the plaintiffs’ right to a hearing, which means the case could come to trial as early as November.
Jayden, perhaps more than the other plaintiffs, has felt the impact of climate change. She has watched hurricanes batter her state and the rise of the sea hollow out a coastline already damaged by sinking land, wetlands destruction and oil industry dredging. After a storm hit her hometown of Rayne last August, she woke up in her bedroom ankle-deep in water, though her neighborhood had never flooded before. Her house, still damaged after the August storm, flooded again in early May.
Jayden understands that climate change is driving the extreme weather that has become more frequent and fierce along the Gulf Coast. Her conviction is unremarkable among the other plaintiffs who largely come from blue states. But here in Rayne, Jayden’s outspokenness on the science and risks of climate change, and her involvement in the lawsuit, have left her in a lonely place.
Louisianans are less likely than most other Americans to believe in man-made climate change. That’s partly because of a long campaign by fossil fuel interests to muddy the science on global warming and fight pollution regulation. In Rayne, many men work oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, including Jayden’s own father at one time, and there’s a natural sympathy for an industry that has been painted as a victim of zealous environmentalists. Climate science is not part of the public school curriculum.
The only community of kids in which Jayden has found acceptance is among the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
On her birthday, Jayden was far from those other kids. Madison’s mom had gotten mad before at the Foytlins, but it never lasted long. Now, she had forbidden her kids from seeing Jayden and her siblings. Sitting in her driveway, hearing she wouldn’t see her best friend again, Jayden began to cry.
Fighting for the Right to Environmental Protection
The lawsuit, Juliana et al v. United States, is based on a legal concept called the public trust doctrine, which argues that the government holds resources such as land, water or fisheries in trust for its citizens. Climate litigators contend that the government is a trustee of the atmosphere, too. The doctrine’s power flows from the Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Amendments, and the Vesting, Posterity and Nobility Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. In 2015, environmental plaintiffs in the Netherlands, South Africa and Pakistan, as well as Massachusetts and Washington state, won similar human rights or constitutional cases that force authorities to cut carbon emissions more aggressively.
The plaintiffs in Juliana argue that the federal government has known for at least 50 years that combustion of fossil fuels adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and damages the climate. Because it chose to promote and subsidize fossil fuel use that resulted in greenhouse gas emissions, the government violated the plaintiffs’ right to protection from environmental degradation under the public trust doctrine, the suit alleges.
“The overarching public trust resource is our country’s life-sustaining climate system, which encompasses our atmosphere,” the Juliana pleading says. “As sovereign trustees, Defendants have a duty to refrain from ‘substantial impairment’ of these essential natural resources.”
The federal government has countered that the plaintiffs lack standing to sue. It was backed by The American Petroleum Institute and other industry groups, which joined the suit as intervenors for the defense. In late May, the fossil fuel lobbies asked a federal judge to withdraw from the lawsuit, allowing them to avoid handing over potentially damaging information as part of the discovery process.
The 21 plaintiffs in the case, between the ages of 9 and 21, are from mainly Democratic enclaves in eight states, including Colorado, Oregon and Pennsylvania.
In Jayden’s reliably conservative hometown of Rayne in Acadia Parish, by contrast, 80 percent of the vote went for Trump. The southwest Louisiana parish is in the heart of Cajun country, its roads lined with lush, green, waterlogged fields where people grow rice and crawfish. Rayne is the “Frog Capital of The World,” a hub of the culinary frog leg industry. Some of the town’s low buildings sport statues of frogs in suits and bowties, sitting cross-legged, like commuters waiting for a train.
The rise of offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf has changed Cajun country over the last 50 years. Taxes on oil and gas accounted for 10 to 15 percent of the state’s budget from 2006 to 2016, and the industry is one of Louisiana’s largest employers. Billboards scattered all over Acadia Parish sell oil field equipment and services. Far more advertise the services of personal injury lawyers looking for clients among rig workers.
Oil drew Jayden’s family down to Louisiana from Oklahoma 11 years ago. Jayden’s mother, Cherri, is an Oklahoman of Native American heritage, while her father, Forest, grew up in Acadia Parish. With four young children and few job options in their Oklahoma town, Forest Foytlin took advantage of lucrative job opportunities on the oil platforms in the Gulf.
The Foytlins are divorced now, and Forest was laid off from the rigs when oil prices sank a few years ago. Cherri and five of their six children live in a ranch house at the end of a quiet street. The driveway is covered with chalk tic-tac-toe games, bikes and, by the front door, some forgotten plastic Easter eggs. The house sprawls deep into a long yard. But most of the modest rooms are in disrepair, the floors and walls torn up, a bathroom unusable and sofas coming apart, as the family struggles to rebuild from last August’s flood.
The flooding lasted days, coming through the doors and up the foundation, cracked by subsidence. Floodwater mixed with sewage washed through the house. Water stood in the home for two weeks of rain, and the family got sick with flu symptoms and diarrhea. Because the Foytlin house isn’t in a designated flood zone, they had no flood insurance, which has made rebuilding frustratingly slow.
“I stepped right in the middle of climate change,” Jayden said of the flooding, in a September 2016 declaration filed as an addendum to the lawsuit.
Pushback in the Heart of Cajun Country
Jayden’s involvement in the lawsuit came after she and Cherri met Elizabeth Brown, a lawyer with Our Children’s Trust, at a Tulane University environmental conference in 2015. Brown called Cherri a short while later asking if Jayden would join the lawsuit. Jayden swiftly agreed.
Cherri Foytlin had embraced the oil industry like everyone around her, but that changed after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. She initially joined the critics opposing the Obama administration’s drilling moratorium. But Cherri, working as a reporter for a local newspaper, grew frustrated by the stage-managed trips to the Gulf that BP organized. She hired a local fisherman to take her out in his boat, and they came across a pelican soaked in oil. They hauled it in, thinking they could save it if they got back to shore. The bird shuddered and flapped and died in the boat.
“I had this big ole Cajun crying like a baby in front of me and his little boy, who’d been telling me all day that he wanted to be a fisherman like his daddy,” Cherri said. “When I came back home, I knew something had changed in me. I asked myself, how did I help create this? I couldn’t be complacent.”
Cherri walked from New Orleans to Washington over 34 days in early 2011 to publicize the lasting effects of the spill, trailed by a documentary crew. Today, she is a full-time activist, the state director of Bold Louisiana, an environmental group fighting the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state.
Cherri’s children, especially Jayden and her sister Erin, 15, often travel with her to conferences and rallies. “There’s a level of guilt sometimes,” she said. “Did I do the right thing by teaching them to be so active at such a young age? I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous, but it puts them up to criticism, and that can be harmful or isolating to a young girl.”
But Jayden and Erin saw their mom speak at demonstrations and wanted to be like her.
“Visiting people who had Hurricane Katrina happen to them, that was an awakening for me,” Jayden said. “I forgot the name of this lady. She was old and she lived by herself. Her house was destroyed, and all around was mold and stuff that couldn’t be fixed. All these people who couldn’t do anything to save themselves. I could try to do something to save them.”
“It’s important that I’m doing this at a young age because it inspires people of my generation to help,” Jayden said. “You don’t have to wait until you’re older.”
Jayden knows the blowback Cherri faced when her BP activism grew more conspicuous: a brick through a car window, threats to have her children taken away. The lawsuit risks isolating her even more from other teenagers in town.
She is homeschooled, and therefore doesn’t know a lot of other kids. She admits to being high-strung, quitting softball because of how anxious she became when people looked at her in the batter’s box. At the same time, she is the tough, stubborn kid who, as a five-year-old, hung onto a sheep in a local rodeo “sheep busting” contest while far bigger kids fell off.
Her progressive politics also complicate life. “It’s really hard to make friends because people have a different mindset than I do,” she said. “I don’t mind if you voted for Trump or Clinton. But they seem to mind that we supported Bernie.”
She speaks up on hot-button issues. Jayden has a half-brother who is black. So when a boy in her online history class said slavery in the United States was necessary and humane, she called him a white supremacist and got in trouble with teachers. When her science teacher asked for causes of Louisiana’s coastal land loss, Jayden cited the oil and gas industry’s activities and promptly got pushback from the Louisiana-based instructor.
“Teachers are just now looking at sea level rise as something we need to start worrying about,” said Wendy Demers, who has taught middle school science in the New Orleans area for 20 years. “They are saying, ‘My students are asking these questions, and I don’t know how to answer.’ I know there is at least one parish in Louisiana where the teachers were challenged by the community for teaching climate change.”
In 2008, the state legislature passed the Louisiana Science Education Act, which permits the teaching of alternatives to the theory of evolution and climate science. A high school student in Baton Rouge named Zack Kopplin started a campaign in 2010 to repeal the law. His effort won backing from Nobel laureates and thousands of people outside Louisiana but ultimately stalled at home. In his community, he was something of an outsider.
“I had friends, but the mission itself is lonely, and it’s probably worse for her because she’s homeschooled,” said Kopplin, now 23, of Jayden. “It’s not cool to be politically active when you’re a kid. Even when your peers agree with you, they won’t say it because it’s uncool.”
Jayden’s closest friends now are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect to fit in with the group because I’ve always been so different from everyone else around me,” Jayden said in her purple-and-white bedroom, the first room renovated after the August flood. “But I fit right in, like a puzzle piece.”
Young Voices Take Their Argument to Washington
In late April, Cherri, Erin and Jayden flew to Washington, D.C., to attend the People’s Climate March. They and other Juliana plaintiffs rented a house together. After dropping off their luggage, the kids collapsed into a group hug.
The four days Jayden and her fellow plaintiffs spent in Washington were a swirl of activity. They spent one morning holding a press conference about the case, accompanied by high-level supporters, including Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
The plaintiffs were joined by staff of Our Children’s Trust. Daniel Jubelirer, a field organizer for the group, led them through an exercise in which they each shared a rose (an example of something good in their lives), a bud (something they were looking forward to) and a thorn (an obstacle ahead).
Jayden’s turn came early. She said her rose “would be being involved in this case.” Her thorn was the opposition to her cause in her hometown and state.
“It’s hard, I guess, at least where I live. … I live in a small town in Louisiana, and it’s a very conservative state. I’m in the only Democratic family where I live, and it’s a very small town. It’s very hard to, like, socialize because … where I live has a bunch of oil workers,” she said. ”People don’t want [their kids] talking to me, or they don’t want to talk to me.”
When it was time for Julia Olson, the head legal counsel on the case, to talk, Jayden’s words still echoed in her head. “My thorn is what you just said, Jayden, and knowing—this is going to make me cry—the hardships that you all go through,” Olson said, fighting back tears.
The morning of the climate demonstration, the sky was gray as volunteers set up the stage for a pre-march rally. In the roped-off area for speakers and media, Jayden held a “No Bayou Bridge Pipeline” poster as she stood a few feet away from her mother and sister. The three Foytlin women wore variations of the same outfit: a black shirt and long skirt, a bright red “Defend, Resistance” bandana and dangly, beaded earrings.
Only Cherri was slated to speak at the rally, but she took the stage with both of her daughters.
Erin introduced herself and explained that Louisiana’s governor had declared a state of emergency due to coastal land-loss as Jayden held up the Bayou sign.
Jayden then approached the microphone. She said: “Last August, we woke up to half a foot of water streaming down our house due to climate change and the loss of the wetlands. This is why I’m part of Our Children’s Trust and the lawsuit against the government for inaction on climate change.”
The crowd interrupted her with applause at the mention of the lawsuit and a man in the crowd yelled, “Thank you, Jayden.” She smiled, looking relieved, and later off stage, posed for pictures.
The sisters then joined the Our Children’s Trust plaintiffs and more than 200,000 other protesters at the Climate March. As they walked in the record heat from the Capitol to the White House, Jayden and two young plaintiff friends, Jaime Butler and Aji Piper, held a large white banner with a message for President Trump and the fossil fuel industry: “See you in court.”