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Young Navajo activist takes climate change fight to court, State Capitol

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PHOENIX – Jaime Lynn Butler isn’t old enough to vote, but that hasn’t stopped the 12-year-old from becoming a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Gov. Jan Brewer and speaking to members of the Arizona Legislature about climate change.

In 2011, the Western Environmental Law Center, on behalf of Butler and her mother, Rep. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Cameron, filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against Brewer and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality contending that the government has an obligation to protect the atmosphere as a public trust.

Last month, Butler stood in front of the House Agriculture and Water Committee to introduce a documentary about how climate change has affected her life on the Navajo Nation.

“For a long time I’ve been concerned of the animals and Mother Earth,” Butler said.

Butler began her activism at age 9 when she started writing letters to President Barack Obama and other elected officials asking them to take action on climate change. iMatter, a youth-led campaign of the nonprofit group Kids vs Global Warming, contacted Butler to document her efforts.

iMatter partnered with Witness, a nonprofit human rights advocacy group, and Our Children’s Trust, an organization that supports young people involved in climate change activism, to create the seven-minute documentary. Butler then sent it to all members of the Arizona Legislature and was invited to speak by Rep. Catherine Miranda, D-Phoenix, a member of the committee.

Butler spoke only briefly as she introduced the video, in which she explains hardships she faces because of climate change. For example, her family was forced to sell her horse after the cost of hay and hauling water became too much due to drought.

“I hope your decision will take into consideration (the) concern of the childrens’ youth,” Butler told the committee.

Afterward, Miranda said she was glad to hear a young person rather than an adult addressing climate change.

“The power coming from youth is very strong, and I appreciate your message in saving the environment and our water,” Miranda said.

Peshlakai said she’s inspired by her daughter’s activism. Butler recently had her traditional Navajo ceremony in which she established kinship with the earth and universe.

“I think for me, as a mother, the protection of those holy and sacred areas are really paramount to my children’s happiness and spiritual security,” Peshlakai said. “Because we pray, and we give offerings, and it’s so very important for our people. ”

Rep. Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Sahuarita, a member of the committee, said Butler’s presentation showed that her generation will be making decisions soon and deserves a say.

“It was inspiring,” Gabaldon said. “She’s carrying a message that all of us should be carrying.”

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said she legislators don’t hear enough from young people about how future generations will be affected by climate change.

“It was really a ray of sunshine, a positive message about something of critical concern coming from a very strong messenger,” Bahr said. “Somebody who has looked at it, is concerned about it and really is going to have to deal with it more than most of the people sitting on the committee.”

Kelly Matheson, an attorney and senior program manager at Witness, co-directed the documentary. She said the efforts being undertaken by youths like Butler are unprecedented and innovative.

“I think that the youth voice, because they’re the ones that are going to be the most impacted, are going to have the most powerful voice,” Matheson said in a Skype interview from France.” And they don’t have an agenda. They just want a livable future, and they want their rights recognized.”

Matheson said that Butler is among many young people in the U.S. fighting for environmental protections in a larger legal strategy called the Atmospheric Trust Litigation. She is one of more than 400 young people taking legal action, including a federal lawsuit.

After Butler’s lawsuit failed in Maricopa County Superior Court, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled recently that while the atmosphere may be a public trust Butler didn’t prove whether Brewer and other officials had violated the Public Trust Doctrine.

Matheson said such lawsuits allow the Atmospheric Trust Litigation to elevate the youth and give them bigger platforms for their cause.

Butler said her peers recently learned about her activism and are impressed by her legal action.

“My friends say, ‘They’re suing the government. It’s so cool,’” she said.