RAYNE, Louisiana — Awakened by urgent pounding on her bedroom door, 13-year-old Jayden Foytlin was still half-asleep as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed in the predawn darkness. Groggily wiping the sleep from her eyes, she stretched her toes toward the floor. What she felt suddenly jolted her wide awake. A steady stream of ankle-deep water was gushing through her room, sloshing over her feet.
“My siblings were banging because they could see the water coming from under my door,” she said.
Experts have tied the historic flooding that swamped Foytlin’s home to climate change, something she feels is all too familiar. The eighth grader is one of 21 young people from across the country who in 2015 filed a lawsuit charging the federal government with not doing enough to protect her generation and future generations from the effects of climate change. She’s also advocating for an end to oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s not just the future the young activist is concerned about.
“Climate change is harming my family now,” she said after a September court hearing, referring to the catastrophic flood that struck Louisiana in August.
Foytlin said her home, like thousands of others across the state, didn’t have flood insurance because it had never before flooded and wasn’t in a designated flood zone.
“We lost our furniture and our belongings. Even most of my little brother’s toys were destroyed,” she said.
In the lawsuit, Foytlin and her co-plaintiffs assert that the U.S. government has not done enough to protect their families and their futures. They also allege that the United States has violated their right to life, liberty and property, and say the federal government is failing to protect the nation’s public resources. In part, the plaintiffs argue the suit is necessary because their voices are not adequately represented in government because they are too young to vote.
With the help of counsel coordinated by Our Children’s Trust, an organization dedicated to securing a healthy planet for future generations, the plaintiffs are asking President Barack Obama to immediately implement a plan to reduce carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million by the year 2100. They also seeking to hold the president and federal agencies responsible for future damage to the climate.
“Jayden and her co-plaintiffs share a few traits in common — they're courageous, caring and intelligent. They inspire our entire staff every day,” said Curtis Morrison, a Climate Law Fellow with Our Children’s Trust.
Concerned about the lawsuit’s potential effects on future regulation, most major U.S. oil companies, along with the American Petroleum Institute (API), a national trade association representing the oil and gas industry, voluntarily joined the suit on behalf of the federal government and filed a motion to dismiss the suit. In April, a judge denied the motion, a decision that was upheld by U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken in November.
In her ruling, Aiken cites Foytlin’s most recent declaration to the court when explaining why the plaintiffs’ claims of injury are sufficient for the case to continue.
"Floodwaters were pouring into our home through every possible opening. We
tried to stop it with towels, blankets, and boards. The water was flowing down the
hallway, into my Mom's room and my sisters' room. The water drenched my living
room and began to cover our kitchen floor. Our toilets, sinks, and bathtubs began to
overflow with awful smelling sewage because our town's sewer system also flooded.
Soon the sewage was everywhere. We had a stream of sewage and water running
through our house."
Representatives from the Department of Justice declined to comment and the API did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Foytlin said she was working on science homework when her mother Cherri Foytlin told her the lawsuit was going to trial.
“Sometimes people don’t listen to kids or they think we don’t know what we’re talking about,” she said. “But we do, and I’m glad the judge thinks so, too.”
For Foytlin, whose family moved to Louisiana from Oklahoma when she was just 3 years old, activism runs in the family. Her mother (full disclosure: a friend of this reporter) became an environmental activist after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico nearly seven years ago. The younger Foytlin says she’s learned a lot from going to meetings and watching her mother work with communities across the Gulf Coast and the nation.
“I see how my mom really cares about people and wants us all to have clean air and clean water,” Foytlin said, during a recent phone interview. “She makes sure people understand how important climate change is and how their kids can get sick from pollution.”
At the same time that her home sustained major damage during the recent flooding, Foytlin worked alongside her mother to help others in need, including an elderly cancer patient in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, whose home took on several feet of water and needed to be gutted before mold set in.
“I feel it’s important to help her because my house also got flooded, but it wasn’t as major as this,” Foytlin said.
With her mother’s help, Foytlin is also working on her public speaking skills. She recently spoke at a New Orleans rally to end new oil and gas leasing in the Gulf of Mexico, which she hopes will help to slow climate change.
“President Obama can help,” she said. “He can stop letting these oil companies pollute, and he can stop leasing off parts of the Gulf.”
Foytlin, who has two sisters and three brothers and likes to draw in her spare time, says she’s looking forward to one day having her own family.
“When I have kids I want them to be safe,” said Foytlin, adding that she hopes her children never have to wake up to water under the bed, like she did during the flood last August.
“I don’t want them to have the fear of being flooded or to fear climate change,” she added.