Meet the mom litigating the 'biggest case on the planet'

Julia Olson, chief legal counsel of Our Children's Trust, is helping 21 young people sue President Obama and the federal government over insufficient action on climate change.

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

Eugene, Oregon (CNN)Julia Olson is litigating what should be considered the most important court case in the United States: She's helping 21 kids, as young as age 9, sue the Obama administration over its insufficient action on climate change.

But to understand why this legal action is so critical, and what's driving her to bring the case against tough odds, you need to meet Olson in 2006, eight months pregnant, and looking for shelter from the late-summer sun.
"It was August and it was hot," she told me. "I remember the heat."
    Olson, now 45, sought refuge in an old-timey Oregon movie theater. The film playing was "An Inconvenient Truth," which outlines the perils of climate change -- the storms and fires and floods and droughts we've seen all summer.
    By then, Olson was an experienced environmental attorney. She knew the basics of climate science, that we humans are heating up the planet at a rate that scares scientists, primarily by burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests. She got it intellectually.
    But while she watched the documentary she thought about the baby boy in her womb.
    What would he inherit?
    Would the world be safe?
    Would it even be livable?
    "I cried through most of the film," she told me. "It was very powerful to be carrying new life within me ... and to see what I was bringing my child into, and to have it so visually in my face."
    "It's such a human instinct to bring life into the world and raise children," she added, "and now there's this added responsibility of 'I'm bringing them into the world and I'm also leaving them with this planet that may not be safe for them.' It's a big responsibility for a parent. And I want more parents to feel that weight of responsibility for the planet and the country that they will leave their children. I really want our presidents and our politicians and our leaders, people within the departments of the federal government -- and judges -- to feel that weight."

    'Biggest case on the planet'

    On Tuesday, Olson will try to get US District Judge Ann Aiken, a Bill Clinton appointee, to feel the weight of the court's responsibility to do what other branches of government so far have failed to do: Create a national plan to get greenhouse gas emissions to levels that scientists consider safe. She's bringing the suit on behalf of 21 young people because children have more to lose with climate change than adults. They'll be living the climate-changed future we all should fear.
    These climate kids can't vote. They have no voice in politics.