Nathan Baring

Nathan Baring

When environmental law expert Dana Zartner visited Gustavus Adolphus College for a guest lecture this fall, a tall first-year student sat in the back, paying close attention. During her talk, the University of San Francisco professor discussed the intersection of environmental justice and human rights, spending a few minutes on Juliana v. United States, a groundbreaking case in which 21 young people are suing the federal government in what’s been dubbed a “constitutional crisis lawsuit.”

The plaintiffs’ argument is simple: the government’s actions that exacerbate climate change have failed to protect public trust resources and violated youths’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.

When the lecture finished, the student stood up. Clad in a Swix down jacket, a green flannel, and khakis, he approached Dr. Zartner and stuck out his hand. “I’m Nathan Baring,” the square-jawed student said. “I’m one of the plaintiffs.”

Before he came to Gustavus, before he sued the government, before he was profiled by National Geographic, CNN, and Vogue, Baring was just a kid growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Raised by a school nurse and a supercomputing specialist-turned elementary school teacher, like most Alaskans he spent a lot of time outdoors. But woodsmoke in the air aggravated his asthma while playing soccer, leading his mother to encourage him to write a letter to the editor about air quality. He didn’t know it at the time, but that small act of advocacy would start him down a path that has taken him from his hometown to a federal courthouse in Eugene, Oregon and eventually to Saint Peter, Minnesota.

As he learned more about air quality, Baring became involved in environmental activism in Alaska, joining Alaska Youth for Environmental Action. He wrote letters, attended marches, and met with legislators, exercising every way of advocacy and civic engagement that he could think of. A self-described “political geek,” the more he learned, the more he became concerned with the growing evidence of climate change. As he read paper after paper discussing the science of climate change, he began to notice it firsthand in Fairbanks. Wildfires were happening more frequently in Alaska. It was raining later and later each winter, snowing less and melting sooner. He marched more, wrote more letters.

One day in 2015, Baring was forwarded an email from a non-profit environmental advocacy group called Our Children’s Trust. The email contained information about what could become a revolutionary lawsuit and asked for volunteers. After convincing his parents that his heart was truly in it, that he knew just how big of a fight he was signing up for, he joined Juliana v. United States.

At the age of 15, Baring was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the most powerful country in the world

Four years later, Baring is by all appearances a typical first-year student at Gustavus. Like most Gusties, his schedule is packed as he goes from class to student organization meeting to studying. Sometimes, however, he needs to fly to New York City for a Vogue photoshoot or work with the Gustavus media relations office to schedule an interview for the podcast that is covering the lawsuit.

Baring, who plans to major in political science and biology, quickly connected with other students on campus, joining the Environmental Action Coalition, the Groundswell planning committee, and the Diversity Leadership Council.

“Gustavus has allowed me to challenge myself,” Baring says, explaining that the College’s rigorous and supportive academic environment means he can pursue a double major.

“I am working on a book on child and youth activism, so I was interested in Juliana v. United States even before I knew that one of the plaintiffs attended Gustavus, and I was delighted when Nathan enrolled in my Political and Legal Thinking class,” said Gustavus political science professor Jillian Locke, who also serves as Baring’s academic advisor. “We are studying the history of political thought, and Nathan is clearly curious about connecting course authors’ ideas about rights, security, and the public good to climate and environmental issues. We should be proud of the liberal arts foundation Gustavus provides for a long life of civic and intellectual engagement.”

Still, it’s challenging to balance day-to-day coursework and campus commitments with the weight of a federal lawsuit. Baring finds time to study in the campus center between classes and meetings and, despite the fluidity of college life, is usually intentional about doing homework and reviewing notes in his residence hall lobby from 7-11 p.m. each night before winding down with some Netflix. “There are six or eight of us from different majors who study together every day,” he says. The students often ask each other questions about course material or work together to explore different approaches to problems. “I’ve definitely found my cohort here.”

After graduation, Baring plans to move back to Fairbanks and get more professional experience in politics and advocacy—he’s already interned for U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) and Alaska state representative David Guttenberg (D)—before going to law school.

 Baring with fellow members of the Gustavus Groundswell planning team.
Sipping coffee from a compostable cup in the Courtyard Café at Gustavus, Baring leans forward and grows animated while discussing Juliana v. United States. “Even 30 years ago NASA scientists were warning about climate change,” he says, referencing Goddard Institute for Space Studies research on greenhouse gasses and James Hansen’s testimony to Congress in 1988. Juliana was considered a long shot at first, but the case has cleared hurdle after hurdle, from the government’s initial motions to dismiss the lawsuit to multiple federal petitions to the U.S. Supreme Court requesting a stay of trial due to the incredible scope of the case and the fact that its decision could affect policy to a degree never before seen in U.S. history—or at least since Brown v. Board of Education.

“Similar environmental cases have won in the Netherlands and Colombia,” Baring explains. “It’s an uphill battle, but Judge Ann Aiken [of the United States District Court in Oregon] wrote in an earlier decision that ‘the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.’”

The movement behind the suit is gaining momentum, with amicus briefs filed by several members of the United States Congress, a coalition of public health organizations including the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and American Pediatric Society, and over 150 law professors and environmental historians. Leonardo DiCaprio has promoted the cause on social media and through his foundation, and over 36,000 young people signed an amicus brief in support of the Juliana plaintiffs that was submitted to the court on March 1. Baring and his compatriots have been featured on 60 Minutes and regularly do individual media appearances to discuss climate change and the legal process.

But Baring bristles at the notion that the lawsuit is a media play or that the plaintiffs are just pawns of adults pushing an environmental agenda. He believes in the science of climate change and the moral imperative to address it, but he doesn’t consider himself a stereotypical environmentalist. “One of my friends is the son of an oil company executive. I know and have worked for people that first came to Alaska as laborers for the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline that defines our economy. I enjoy hunting and if I had to pick a political affiliation I’d say I lean just as libertarian as liberal,” Baring says, explaining that his religious identity as a Quaker encourages independence and seeking logical resolutions to conflict independent of a government. “I did everything I could to fight for change within the system. I marched, I wrote, I advocated. But as children, we couldn’t vote, so this lawsuit became a last resort for us to make our voices heard.”

Baring will take his final exams and finish his first year at Gustavus the last week of May. On June 3, barring another government delay or Supreme Court intervention, he will be in Portland as the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit hears oral arguments on a motion for injunctive relief that will determine how the lawsuit proceeds and may dramatically change federal involvement in promoting the current U.S. energy system.

Regardless of the case’s outcome or how long it takes, Baring feels a moral obligation to continue the fight against climate change, an issue that he sees as one of the greatest challenges of our time.

“I want my children to be able to experience the Alaska that I grew up in,” Baring says. “If we don’t address climate change, that won’t happen.”

In the meantime, he’ll be back on the hill at Gustavus, advocating for environmental issues on campus, studying with his friends, and equipping himself with the skills he’ll need to contribute to the global conversation on climate change.

And when he graduates, he’ll head back to Fairbanks, where he hopes to find long, snowy winters and cold, clean air.