Upon first encounter, Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced Shoe-Tez-Caht) Martinez seems like your typical high schooler. He hangs out with friends in his spare time, has a penchant for rap music, and places family above all else. But once you get the 17-year-old talking, it becomes clear that his extracurriculars extend far beyond a varsity field or music room.
Martinez, along with 20 of his peers who range in age from 9 to 20, is suing the federal government for violating their constitutional right to life, liberty, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness. As far as they are concerned, any politician who supports the fossil fuel industry is putting his or her constituents squarely in climate change’s fierce line of fire.
"We are demanding that they put together a climate recovery plan to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions every year until we’re down to 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere," Martinez explains on a call from Los Angeles. He pauses before pronouncing, "Pretty ambitious."
Ambitious indeed. But considering that the younger generation has the most to lose in the fight against climate change, it just might work. Levi Draheim (9) could witness his hometown on Florida’s Atlantic coast wash away before he hits 50. And Nathan Baring (17), a high school student in Alaska, is already watching warmer temperatures destroy his native landscape.
"I can deal with a few days of rain in February when it’s supposed to be 40 below, but I can’t deal with the idea that what my parents experienced and what I have experienced will not exist for my children. I am a winter person. I won’t sit idly by and watch winter vanish," Baring told National Geographic. Mobilizing experiences like these have already carried the young activists past their first hurdle.
Represented by the legal body Our Children's Trust, they initially brought the case to court in 2015, when the Obama administration was still in power. Almost immediately, representatives of the fossil fuel industry joined the government to fight to have the case dismissed. Ultimately, the court ruled that the teens had the right to move forward. This February, the case will go to trial at the U.S. District Court of Oregon.
"The fact that we’ve made it this far—the fact that the government sided with the youth instead of with one of the most profitable industries in the country—that’s pretty unheard of, especially for the climate movement," Martinez says proudly.
This isn’t Martinez's first go against the fossil fuel industry, and it probably won’t be his last. Hailing from a family of environmentalists, activism is in his DNA. His father is of Aztec heritage and imparted his children with a reverence for nature from the start, sharing his cultural values that every living thing is connected. His mother, a teacher, founded a youth environmental organization, Earth Guardians, before Xiuhtezcatl was born. At 6, Martinez began speaking in the name of the environment at marches alongside his parents and five siblings. By 12, he was joining a fight to have fracking banned in his native Colorado wilderness. He won, leaving the fossil fuel industries out of their county for five years. By 15, he was addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Climate Change on behalf of indigenous people and youth everywhere. At 17, he's eagerly awaiting the release of his first book, We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement That Restores the Planet, a primer on how to take creative action in the fight against climate change and beyond.
Listening to Martinez speak of his accomplishments in a confident, fearless tone, it's easy to forget his age. But he credits his youth as a driving force in his activism. To him, being young is a reminder to savor the little things in life—and fight to protect them.
"Not taking yourself too seriously is incredibly critical when you’re doing this type of work," he says. "For me, as a 17-year-old, it’s a really social time for me. Even if you’re an activist in your 60s, though, if you’re not having fun, you're not doing it right." As for what keeps him going through the inherent difficulty of this sort of work, it's a collection of small moments. "It's every breath I take, every moment that makes me fall in love with life a little more. Whether it's interacting with another human being or taking in an incredibly beautiful view—that’s what I’m fighting to protect. It’s not just about the environment or politics. It’s about protecting what we love."
As he and his peers prepare for their landmark case using a combination of social media campaigns, marches, and events, Martinez says it's this passion that's fueling the fight: "It’s about our future, our stories, our lives, our communities, and protecting what we love." The kids just may be all right.
Ready to get to know a few more unlikely climate heroes? This 14-year-old environmentalist petitioned to bring a green holiday to her neighborhood, and this 25-year-old activist ran for Congress in California. And be sure to check out Xiuhtezcatl's brand new book, We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement That Restores the Planet.