Elizabeth Rusch’s latest book, The Twenty-One: The True Story of the Youth Who Sued the US Government Over Climate Change (Greenwillow Books, Sept. 26), tells the ongoing story of Juliana v. United States. In the landmark case, filed in 2015, a group of 21 youth plaintiffs sued the federal government for its contribution to the worsening of climate change and for violating their constitutional rights to a safe, clean, and healthful environment in the process. Representing them in the endeavor was Our Children’s Trust, a legal nonprofit founded by the lead attorney for the case, Julia Olson.

The book recounts the hurdles, both legal and personal, faced by these young people in the years since the case was filed. An enormous hurdle came in January 2020, when a Ninth District court dismissed the case, stating that the relief requested by the plaintiffs was beyond the court’s constitutional power to grant. Undeterred, their battle continued: The 21 asked for an additional hearing, seeking to amend their complaint in response to the court’s feedback. District Court Judge Ann Aiken did not rule on the question until June 1, 2023.

Kirkus spoke to Rusch on the day a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs (also represented by Our Children’s Trust) in Held v. Montana, a similar youth-led case against the state of Montana. Rusch, who lives in Portland, Oregon, answered our questions over Zoom after driving to the coast to escape 104-degree heat in the usually temperate city. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This book is a history in the making. As we see from the exciting update in Montana this morning, it’s continuing to unfold. The book I received from your publicist is even an update from the galley Kirkus reviewed in June.

I feel like I could revise this book forever. I got my contract to write the book in 2021. June 2021 was the hearing to amend the plaintiffs’ complaint, and my deadline wasn’t until March 2022. I thought I had all the time in the world to get the ruling, and I wanted to make that the last chapter of the book.

A year goes by, no ruling. A year and a half goes by, no ruling. The book goes through editing, through copyediting, through design. In the end, and I think this is the galley Kirkus reviewed, there were blank pages where we wrote, “This is what it is like to wait for a judge to rule on a case you care deeply about and that affects your future.” That’s what was going to press, and then on June 1, Judge Aiken ruled in the kids’ favor.

Meanwhile, the Montana case was going to trial in two weeks, so I asked, “Can you hold a couple paragraphs for the Montana trial?” I took a road trip to Helena to watch part of it. I think I literally typed the last period as the book was going to press. I would be updating it right now if I could!

You write about the entire legal process in a very clear, engaging way. Was that hard to achieve?

I feel like I got a mini law degree in the process of writing. I read thousands of pages of court documents and hearing transcripts. The legal battle for this case has been complex and somewhat technical; much of what the book covers is pretrial hearings. I kept asking myself, How do I make this interesting for young readers? In 2019, Iattended a hearing for the case in Portland, and I was absolutely riveted. Remembering that, I began thinking I could write the book as a sort of legal thriller.

I also knew I wanted to focus on the stories of the youth, the actual people behind it, in between the more technical moments. There was Sahara and Isaac, who are both athletes who suffer from asthma and whose lives have been endangered by wildfire smoke. And there’s Levi, who’s been evacuated from his home in Florida twice because of severe hurricanes. And Jayden, who’s been stranded and sickened by floodwaters in Louisiana. The stakes in all their stories are undeniable.

The book certainly highlights how much storytelling plays into the legal process. There’s a lot of artistry in building a legal argument.

[Lead attorney] Julia Olson says that as well. She says that good lawyers are good storytellers. Her job is to tell a story for the judge that helps them look at the law a certain way. She’s a really good lawyer, so she’s a really good storyteller.

The 21 youth plaintiffs need to establish that they have a right to be heard by the court, that their story is one that the court needs to listen to. Simply getting to the place of holding a trial is a huge part of the battle. The way the legal system works, there has to be a record of facts. The trial establishes that record. All these cases are laying the groundwork for what could become a constitutional right to a stable climate.

And regardless of the outcome of Juliana v. United States, that groundwork remains.

And that’s what happened with Plessy v. Ferguson [in 1896]. The court ruled that “separate but equal” was constitutional, but then there were all these other cases, not just Brown v. Board of Education [in the 1950s] but many others as well, and some said yesand some said no, and eventually it got back to the Supreme Court, and they could no longer deny it.

It has to get to a place where there’s no other conclusion. You can’t have life, liberty, and property if you can’t breathe. The core principle of this case is that not only is the government not doing enough, but it’s actively contributing to and supporting the fossil fuel industry. That’s a very different way of thinking about climate change. I think that the best way to change minds is through stories, and this is an incredible story. These youth have the biggest goal possible: to save the planet. They have one of the most powerful opponents: the U.S. government. They have a couple things on their side: They’ve got the science on their side; I think they have the Constitution on their side. And then they have this small-town environmental lawyer who’s managed to pull together an incredible team of legal thinkers. It’s a real David and Goliath story.

Not only are they facing the U.S. government, but they’ve now faced three different presidential administrations.

Yeah, the case was filed under the Obama administration. The government’s response to it, from Obama to Trump to Biden, has not changed: that the youth do not have a right to go to trial. I find that fascinating. Democrats say they’re better on climate change, and Biden did pass a big package with a lot of money for renewables. But he also campaigned saying “no more drilling on public lands,” and now he’s permitted quite a lot of drilling on public lands. I think, with the connection between the fossil fuel industry and the money that’s going into paying for campaigns, it’s virtually impossible for the legislature to make these difficult decisions. The only thing is if the courts say, “You have to stop doing this.” There’s no other way.

Ilana Bensussen Epstein is a writer and filmmaker in Boston.