My first thought, on entering the hall, was, “Wow, she doesn’t look like an endowed-chair environmental law professor.” This was back in the fall of 2006, when I went to hear Mary Christina Wood speak. She was about my age, with long chestnut hair, a warm expression, and no makeup. I’ve since marveled that I was even there that night. I live in a college town, and good talks are not unusual. But I had a young daughter at the time, and this may have been the only evening lecture I attended that entire year.
Wood, also the mother of young children, was eloquent. She understood in a way I was just starting to grasp that climate change, if left unchecked, would soon threaten the health, safety and life support systems of our own kids, as well as that of future generations and everything else in the natural world. I left the lecture hall deeply shaken.
Three things I remember clearly: First, I was impressed with her moral clarity. Second, in an answer to a question about what to do about the approaching climate crisis, she said, “Do something, do anything, just don’t do nothing.” And third, I remember that I lay awake that night, fearing for my daughter’s future.
In an effort to compel the government to protect the climate on behalf of present and future generations, Wood was developing a legal theory based on the “public trust doctrine.” I had heard of this doctrine when I worked on water issues in national parks. But I don’t believe anyone had tried to apply it to the earth’s atmosphere before.
The basic idea is that the government has a responsibility to protect vital natural resources for the benefit of all. By allowing polluters to destroy a stable climate, the government is failing to do its duty, and the courts can compel the government to act. It seemed like an elegant argument.
At that moment, I was contemplating a career change, from conservation biologist to environmental writer. I contacted Wood, interviewed her and wrote one of my first stories, “Climate Revolutionary: Creating a legal framework for saving our planet,” which was published in High Country News on May 12, 2008. I have no doubt that encountering Mary Wood helped inspire me to become a climate writer and, in time, a climate activist.
Meanwhile, Wood wrote a book, Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age, developing her legal theory. Her work provides the theoretical foundation for the global litigation approach advanced by an organization called “Our Children’s Trust.” It works with youth across the country and around the world to bring legal action to compel governments to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and stabilize the climate system.
Just two days after this year’s election, a group of 21 young Americans won the right in federal court in Eugene, Oregon, to sue the fossil-fuel industry and the U.S. government based on Wood’s approach. According to U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, these young people have the right to seek the protection of the climate on behalf of all youth and future generations. Similar lawsuits are being brought in other states and countries as well.
As for me, one thing led to another. Replaying Wood’s words, “Do something, do anything, just don’t do nothing,” started a shift in my heart and my head. I began learning and writing more about climate change. In time, this led me to writing a book about responding to climate change and becoming a volunteer climate activist. Today, I spend a large portion of my time lobbying for a carbon fee and dividend law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
So this is a story about how a lucky meeting changed my life. It is also a story about how one woman — an extraordinary environmental law professor — has influenced the world. This doesn’t take into account all the other ways she may have changed lives. So this is really a lesson about hope.
The only lesson I learned from Donald Trump’s election is that we cannot ever know the future. All the professional pundits predicted he would lose, and many of us believed them. I think I finally understand that there is absolutely no way to know what will happen tomorrow or next week or next year.
But it is possible to look back and see the small choices that mattered, to realize you never know where they may lead. So my advice is to do something, do anything, just don’t do nothing. This is the only way to plant seeds that might — just might — grow into progress toward a world in which our children can survive and thrive.