Hallie Turner was 13 years old when she stood outside a Wake County courtroom telling media crews with cameras trained on her that she planned to continue to fight for action on climate change despite her unsuccessful attempt to sue North Carolina over its environmental rules.
Now 15, Hallie is trying again to get the state Department of Environmental Quality and the state Environmental Management Commission to adopt a rule calling for a sharp reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases over the next three decades. This time, two other North Carolina teens — Emily Liu, 16, of Chapel Hill, and Arya Pontula, a Raleigh 17-year-old, joined Hallie in petitioning the commission.
With the help of Ryke Longest at the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit focused on climate change, the teens hope to persuade the state to adopt a rule ensuring that by 2050 carbon dioxide emissions would be down to zero.
“It would be a future in which you would not be burning fossil fuels to power your homes,” Longest said on Monday, the day before the teens filed their petition.
Not just a passing fancy
Hallie, an Enloe High School student, became interested in reducing greenhouse gases when she was only 9 years old. At the time, she had heard people talk about “climate change” and talked with her parents over a couple of dinner conversations about the meaning of the phrase.
After that, she went to the library and picked up Al Gore’s book “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The book, she said, intrigued and inspired her. Though she wasn’t certain she understood at the time all of what the former vice president had written, she took steps that she could to reduce her own carbon footprint. She rides her bike and the family has solar panels on their house.
In the ensuing years, Hallie 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.
Hallie and her co-petitioners argue that North Carolina’s state Environmental Commission, 15 members appointed by the governor and state legislators, are obligated under the state Constitution “to protect our natural resources.”
“The reason we’re continuing this,” Hallie said of the petition filed Tuesday, “is because this issue hasn’t gotten better. It’s getting worse. ...With our president unwilling to sign the Paris Climate Agreement, all the action that’s going to take place is really going to be at the state and local level.”
Concerted national effort
The North Carolina teens’ petition comes as children across the country are turning to the courts in attempts to compel action on climate change.
Groups of children have sued states and the Trump administration using various legal theories to try to force the reduction of pollution in the air and water. One lawsuit filed by 21 young Americans — Juliana vs. The U.S. — contends the federal government is violating their Fifth Amendment rights, depriving them of life, liberty or property without due process of law. The lawyers have argued the government knew about the dangerous effects of burning fossil fuels and has put its citizens at risk by allowing companies to drill for oil on public lands and mine coal.
Hallie first petitioned the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission when she was 12.
But the commissioners never got to the crux of her request, which included scientific data and more to support her theory for why the state should curb greenhouse gas emissions. A commissioner rejected Hallie’s petition because he said it was incomplete. He also added that North Carolina law prohibited environmental agencies from enacting state laws stricter than federal law.
Hallie challenged the decision and took North Carolina to court.
Mike Morgan, a state Supreme Court justice who presided over the 2015 hearing when he was a Wake County Superior Court judge, ruled against Hallie but not before commending her for taking a stand.
“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 before issuing his ruling.
More science this time
Not everyone was so complimentary of her action, though.
After numerous media outlets shared news about the teen’s attempt to get North Carolina to change its rules, her parents, Mark and Kelly Turner, were amazed by some of the negative comments posted on the sites. Commenters who challenged the idea of global warming accused the adults supporting Hallie of exploitation. Some directed derogatory comments at the teen, too.
Plucky, poised and wise beyond her years, Hallie brushes off the negative messages.
“There’s no merit to those arguments,” she said on Monday. “The science is on our side.”
Kelly Turner said as a parent, “you always worry about anything negative being said to or against your child. I think she has a good head on her shoulders. I’m proud of her.”
Hallie said she hopes the petition put together over much of the past year will be met with a different result than her last one. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has voiced his support for the Paris Climate Agreement, highlighting a difference from two years ago when a Republican was North Carolina’s governor and Democrat Barack Obama was president.
Hallie also is glad to have other teens with her.
Emily’s passion for environmental science developed through her participation in UNC’s Climate Leadership and Energy Awareness program and the Alliance for Climate Education’s Action Fellowship program.
“I was exposed to not only the science aspects of the environmental movement but also the climate justice side,” Emily, an East Chapel Hill High School junior, said during a break in her swim practice on Monday evening. “Given the impact of the current political climate on the movement, I feel that the time to act is now.”
Arya, also an Enloe High student, also became involved with climate change activism while at the Alliance for Climate Education program. As Hallie has, both girls have spoken at city council meetings and elsewhere advocating for similar goals.
“With a family history of lung disease and a love for hiking, I have personally experienced both the negative health impacts of pollution and the steady destruction of our most important natural resources, our national and state parks, due to climate change and higher CO2 emissions,” Arya said. “... The bottom line is that, when it comes to our health, we have no other choice but to set our differences aside and work towards a common goal for cleaner, breathable air and preservation of our natural resources.”
The teens say they hope the state’s environmental commissioners will incorporate suggestions from their petition into the state’s rules.
“We have a lot more detailed science incorporated into it,” Hallie said.