Hallie Turner, an eighth-grader at Ligon Middle School, sat between her mother and her attorneys on Friday in a Wake County courtroom, taking in a real-life civics lesson.
The 13-year-old, a self-described environmental activist since the 4th grade, is one of a number of teens across the country who are taking their states and politicians to court over climate change.
Hallie, who missed school on Friday to face off with North Carolina in court, could become a part of history textbooks if she and others in her generation are successful in their concerted effort for a progressive reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.
“It’s important to me because I feel like this is an issue that impacts everyone,” Hallie told reporters inside the courthouse Friday. “And it’s an issue, it’s not only affecting me, but it’s affecting future generations.”
Hallie is challenging a December 2014 decision by the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, a panel of 15 members appointed by the governor and leaders of the N.C. Senate and House of Representatives.
With the help of lawyers from Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based climate change non-profit, attorneys from Duke University’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and Gayle Tuch, a Forsyth County lawyer, Hallie seeks to persuade state leaders to adopt rules that would reduce greenhouse gasses.
Just 12 at the time, Hallie asked in her petition for the state to create a rule, based on the best available climate science, that would require North Carolina to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by at least 4 percent each year.
Commissioner Benne Hutson rejected Hallie’s petition, not on its merits but because he said it was incomplete. He also added that North Carolina law prohibited environmental agencies from enacting state laws that were stricter than federal law.
The state’s attorneys argued that just because a petition was filed with the commission, there were no guarantees that it be further considered.
As Hallie watched the court proceedings between her mother, Kelly, and the lawyers arguing her case, she smiled at mentions of the need for tougher regulations. When the exchanges with Judge Mike Morgan were heavily laden with legal back-and-forth, the 13-year-old shifted her feet back and forth under the table and glanced at the media with cameras pointed at her.
“Hallie’s not asking for more than what’s considered best available science,” said Tuch, an attorney from Clemmons.
Hallie, who says she has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up, became interested in climate change about four years ago after a couple of dinner table conversations with her parents. She had heard people talk about “climate change” and wanted to know what that meant.
That led her to the library, where she picked up Al Gore’s book “An Inconvenient Truth.”
At 9, she said, the book intrigued and inspired her, though she wasn’t certain she understood all of what the former vice president had written.
From there, she decided to start small and reduce her carbon footprint as best she could.
“I ride my bike,” she said Friday. “We have solar panels on our house.”
Hallie has worked on the leadership council of Kids vs. Global Warming, a campaign that started in Canada. She has attended rallies and marches in the Triangle and in Washington, D.C. She spoke at the Climate Convergence on Raleigh in 2013 and tries to engage her classmates in discussions.
“I feel like my voice needs to be heard,” Hallie said. “I haven’t really ever let my age get in the way of it. There are definitely people who are like, ‘You’re a kid. What do you know?’ and that was always the frustrating thing for me.”
Though Hallie did not get to speak in court on Friday – she had to let her lawyers do her talking for her – the judge made note of the teen before him as he told the lawyers he hoped to have a ruling by Thanksgiving.
“Regardless of what the decision is, this court has a great amount of admiration for Hallie Turner and her maturity as a young adult to be involved in a process to try to make a difference in the world,” Morgan said from the bench.
“Thank you your honor,” a poised Hallie responded.
Then before leaving the courtroom with a pack of reporters following her, Hallie went over to the attorneys representing the state and shook their hands.
“I just thought it was the thing to do,” she said afterwards.
Hallie said she does not plan to back down on her mission if the court rules against her. “I’m going to keep fighting,” she said.