Why Teenage Hip-Hop Artist And Climate Change Warrior Xiuhtezcatl Martinez Is Suing The US Government

Fairfax - Andrew Masterson

In the United States in November, in a single 48-hour period, two hugely significant things happened. One of them received worldwide attention but the other, somewhat improbably, might yet turn out to be more important.
The first, of course, was the election of Donald Trump. The second, the following day, concerned prominent District Court judge Ann Aiken, who delivered a legal order that seems set to shake American and global business practice to the core.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is one of a group of teenagers suing the US government to force on climate change.  Photo: Earth Guardians
In the process it may just save humanity from climate change-induced catastrophe. It might also make a Colorado teenager a household name of even greater ubiquity than the President-elect's.
And that will be a hell of an achievement, not least because the name in question is Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.
Scientists rallying in San Francisco, December 2016, against what they say are unwarranted attacks by the incoming Trump administration against scientists advocating for the issue of climate change. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Martinez, 16, is the public face of a group of 21 US teens who in October last year launched a court action against the American government. The case alleged that because the government was undertaking activities that cause climate change, it was therefore denying the constitutional rights of young people to life, liberty and property.
Rather than dismiss the move as a symbolic gesture, the government and various fossil fuel companies lodged strong objections to it. A year later, Judge Aiken delivered a stunning verdict: the objections were thrown out and the way opened for the group to take the US administration to trial.
There is a kind of grim humour to the outcome. In a Republican-dominated Washington DC, where evidence of global warming is routinely dismissed, why not get the job done by simply suing those at the top?
To Martinez – who is heading to Australia in February – the court victory delivered a powerful antidote to the election result.
Martinez, 16, is also a hip-hop artist. He is in Australia in February on a speaking tour. Photo: Earth Guardians
"I believe that regardless of the administration in place this law suit has serious implications," he said.
"If we win, the federal courts are going to force the US government to reduce our carbon emissions to a safe levels. We're not letting Trump slow us down."
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has been an environmental activist most of his life. Photo: Earth Guardians
Although still in high school, Martinez is in heavy demand as a guest speaker across the US and beyond. He said that he sometimes has to deliberately remind himself to be a teenager every now and then. The problem is finding the time to do so.
"Man, it's really hard some days," he said. "Travelling a lot can be very exhausting, but I feel like at the end of the day I still have the freedom to live my life how I want. One good thing is that I've made friends all around the world, and I get a chance to catch up with them a lot because I'm on the road so much."
If we win, the federal courts are going to force the US government to reduce our carbon emissions to a safe levels. We're not letting Trump slow us down.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
Twelve years before he was born, his mother, Tamara Rose, founded an environmental activist group called Earth Guardians. Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced Shoo-Tez-Caht) was literally born into the climate fight. There is video footage of his six-year-old self – tiny and cute and long-haired – hammering points through a microphone at an eco-rally.
These days he still has the long hair and still uses a microphone, but his audiences have grown significantly in size and influence.
Six-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez gives a speech calling on children to protect the environment. Photo: YouTube
He also has an increasingly successful career as a hip-hop artist. It's debatable whether he's more influential in that sphere or in the White House where, for the next little while at least, he still has the ear of the President.
Martinez has been a member of Barack Obama's 24-member youth council since 2013 – when he was the youngest appointee. The President also presented him with the United States Community Service Award (so we can safely assume that Obama doesn't take it personally that the niceties of US litigation mean that he is named in the climate change law suit).
In 2015, the young man was also invited to address a full session of the United Nations.
A contemporary report captured the moment:
Dressed in a donated suit, with dark hair skimming his waist, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the youth director of Earth Guardians, issued a brief prayer in both Spanish and the Nahuatl language. As befuddled U.N. staffers reached for headphones, seeking translation, he began an extemporaneous speech on the folly of climate dithering."I stand before you representing my entire generation," he said. "Youth are standing up all over the planet to find solutions. We are flooding the streets and now flooding the courts.""We need you to take action. We are all Indigenous to this earth."
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, with his younger brother.  Photo: Earth Guardians
There is something admirable but slightly sad about Martinez and the growing band of teenage activists that are accreting around his name. It's a weird twist on the teenage rebellion trope. In this case, the rebellion is not against the conformity of the older generation, but its irresponsibility.
It's faintly depressing, too, that the young activists seem to hold little hope that their elders will eventually come to their senses.
"To an extent this will be lifelong for me," said Martinez. "My involvement will continue until I've built a solid enough platform, when I'll be able to take my hands off.
"Perhaps one day I'll have done my part to help inspire a movement of young people all over the place. There's a lot of work still to be done. I'm always going to be passionate about this, but I don't know whether I want to be on the front lines forever."
His trip Down Under will see him at events in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland. While here he is determined to be a teen, at least for a little while, and get out to listen to some big fat beats.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is a fan of Australian hip-hop including Hilltop Hoods.
"Man I've been into Aussie hip-hop for a long time now," he said. "Spit Syndicate. Hilltop Hoods, Urthboy – I am all over the Aussie hip-hop scene!"

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is in Melbourne on 11 February and Sydney 12 February.


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