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Meet the teenager who helped push Florida toward cleaner energy

Levi Draheim has spent half his life involved in climate change litigation aimed at holding federal and state leaders accountable on fossil fuels.
Robin Loznak/Our Children's Trust
Levi Draheim has spent half his life involved in climate change litigation aimed at holding federal and state leaders accountable on fossil fuels.

MELBOURNE, Fla. — For most of his 15 years, Levi Draheim led a beachy life on a barrier island on Florida's east coast, swimming, surfing and sailing in the nearshore waves. He dreamed of someday becoming a marine biologist. But Levi's world is changing.

Warming temperatures led to widespread Sargassum seaweed and harmful algae blooms in the Atlantic Ocean and 156-mile Indian River Lagoon, which together encircle the island. The seaweed and algae blooms have left beaches stinking with rotting seaweed and dead marine life. In the Indian River Lagoon, the algae blooms have killed seagrass, leading to an unprecedented die-off of manatees that consume the marine plants. On some days, Levi wore a mask at the beach to guard against the smell.

Warming temperatures also have contributed to more frequent and damaging storms, and in 2017 a series of storms including Hurricane Irma, which wrought billions of dollars in damage across the state, caused floodwaters to rise 18 inches in Levi's front yard. His family had to fortify the home with sandbags to prevent further damage. After Levi's mother became pregnant with his half-sister Juniper, a curious 2-year-old with sparse blond hair and big brown eyes, the family decided to abandon the island and move to the mainland.

Levi Draheim lived on a barrier island on Florida's east coast until recently, when he and his family say climate change impacts like flooding prompted them to move to the mainland.
/ Andrea Rodgers/Our Children's Trust
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Andrea Rodgers/Our Children's Trust
Levi Draheim lived on a barrier island on Florida's east coast until recently, when he and his family say climate change impacts like flooding prompted them to move to the mainland.

"It's kind of disappointing not being able to live on the barrier island anymore, because there's so much fun stuff that I could do. Most of my friends, they live on the barrier island," says Levi, now in Melbourne, Fla. "It's a mix of disappointment and also frustration, frustration with leaders."

Earlier this year, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried announced a plan to put the state on a path toward cleaner energy, cutting the emissions Florida contributes to the climate disruptions that are already battering it. Behind the plan was a focused campaign by some 200 young Floridians all under the age of 25. Levi was the youngest.

Young Floridians filed a petition

The young Floridians had found something in state statutes, with help from Our Children's Trust, an advocacy group, that Florida leaders, including Fried, apparently had overlooked: that Fried's department is mandated to set goals for enhancing renewable energy use in the state. In Florida, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees the state's Office of Energy.

The young Floridians filed a petition for rulemaking in January admonishing the state leaders and especially Fried for ignoring the statutory mandate. The petition called on the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Fried to set goals for moving Florida toward 100% clean energy by 2050. Levi felt proud of holding elected leaders accountable but felt they were capable of more.

"I'm glad that they're doing something instead of not doing anything. But still, I feel like they could have done better," Levi says about the rule, which was finalized on Aug. 9. "Like with a parent, that they know that their kid just ran this race and placed fairly decently. They placed third. But they knew that their kid has the potential to do more. I guess it's, in some ways, it's sort of like that. Because I know that there's more that they can do. But I'm glad that they did their best, and I'm glad they did something."

Florida's new goals call for 100% renewable energy by 2050

Nearly half of states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have goals for moving toward 100% clean energy by midcentury, a benchmark scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The Biden administration is aiming for 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035.

Florida is among the states most vulnerable to climate change and yet until now has lacked any real plan to address the main cause behind warming temperatures and wean the state from fossil fuels.

Most of Florida's electricity comes from natural gas plants. Republicans who control the state have been hostile to such goals, leaving some local governments to step in with goals of their own. In 2021, the Republican-controlled state Legislature struck back with a measure effectively banning most local goals.

Agriculture Commissioner Fried, a Democrat, is running in the state primary Aug. 23 to ultimately take on Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, in this year's gubernatorial race, and she has railed against the governor for his inaction on the issue. DeSantis has focused instead on resilience projects, saying he is "not a global warming person."

Florida's new goals call on utilities to move toward 40% clean energy by 2030, 63% by 2035, 82% by 2040 and 100% by 2050. The goals are the same as those proposed by the young Floridians in their petition and are based on a study by Evolved Energy Research, a consulting firm that did similar studies for other states.

The young Floridians' 121-page petition relies on state policy dating back some 15 years to when former Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, was in office. Crist, now a Democratic congressman representing the Tampa area, is running against Fried this month in the Florida Democratic primary.

"We read the law, literally," says Andrea Rodgers, senior litigation attorney at Our Children's Trust, about the Crist-era statute. The group filed the petition on behalf of the young Floridians, including Levi. "When we saw that, that was a mandatory duty that had not been fulfilled, that's when we came up with a strategy to file the petition for rulemaking."

The Crist administration's clean energy goals effectively were abandoned in 2011 when his successor — former Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and now U.S. senator — took office.

Since DeSantis took office in 2019, he has strived to make some environmental issues administration priorities. The governor, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, has put millions of dollars toward the Everglades and other treasured but troubled waterways. But he has faced criticism for doing little about Florida's biggest environmental threat: climate change.

"I have a light inside me"

Now on the mainland, Levi lives with his mother, stepfather, half-sister Juniper and dog Basil, a Staffordshire terrier and treeing Walker coonhound mix with one brown eye and one blue eye. His mom, Leigh-Ann Draheim, raises Juniper, home-schools Levi and works at the family's church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard in West Melbourne.

Stepdad James Kilby is a professional photographer and tends the family's elaborate home garden, aimed at protecting fragile local waters from harmful lawn fertilizers and also sustaining the family. At the moment he is raising fruits, vegetables and herbs, with plans for more.

Levi Draheim now lives in Melbourne, Fla., with his family: mom Leigh-Ann Draheim, stepdad James Kilby and half-sister Juniper.
/ Amy Green for NPR
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Amy Green for NPR
Levi Draheim now lives in Melbourne, Fla., with his family: mom Leigh-Ann Draheim, stepdad James Kilby and half-sister Juniper.

Levi is an affable teen with a bright smile and hair that usually he wears in a "giant Afro," which he describes as a "big part of who I am," although when we meet his hair is closely shorn. He is an accomplished unicycler and spends his spare time sailing in the Indian River Lagoon and also volunteering at the Brevard Zoo. He now dreams of becoming a search-and-rescue dog handler, because he loves animals and loves helping people.

"My mom says that, I don't know how she usually describes it, that I have a light inside me," he says with his mom beside him at the kitchen table. Works of art adorn the walls throughout the home, colorful eclectic paintings from local artists. Many, like one of a fish skeleton and blue-and-green Earth, share a common theme of the environment..

"I don't know what that means exactly," Levi continued about the light inside him, "but my mom says I have a light inside of me that helps me be a better person."

Leigh-Ann Draheim stepped in to help clarify. "He's always had this really good energy about him that people are drawn to," she says. "Even when he was very little, people would talk to him at the grocery store or at the library or whatever. He just had this sort of energy about him. So I think when he fell into this role I think it was a good thing for him, because people are, for whatever reason, interested in Levi."

Levi got involved with Our Children's Trust through his church. In 2015, he was among 21 young plaintiffs from across the country to file a lawsuit against the Obama administration and later, the Trump administration, challenging the federal government's development of fossil fuels. At 8 years old Levi was the youngest. The plaintiffs contended that the system violated their constitutional rights to freedom, life and property. In 2020, an appeals court judge threw out the case.

Levi attended all the court hearings in Eugene, Ore., and traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk with congressional leaders about the lawsuit. His mom chaperoned. The other plaintiffs became like siblings for Levi, but the hardest part was sitting still through the hearings and meetings, his mom recalled.

"He would sit there frustrated going, 'Don't you see what's happening? There's hurricanes. We've had to evacuate my house,'" she says. "He didn't understand all the legal stuff. He just understood that his environment was being affected, and that's what he cared about."

In 2018, Levi joined another lawsuit with other young Floridians against the Scott administration challenging the state's energy system. In 2021, an appeals court dismissed that case, too. But the young Floridians were not ready to give up. The attorneys went back to the statutes and discovered the mandate involving the Department of Agriculture and renewable energy goals.

For Florida, climate change means hotter temperatures, rising seas and more frequent and damaging storms. By 2045, the DeSantis administration predicts some $26 billion in residential property statewide will face chronic flooding.

Levi has found his involvement in the litigation rewarding but also frustrating, in a Republican-led state that has taken almost no action on climate change for about a decade. Most of his friends have been supportive of his activism, but a few do not get it, he says. One friend asked why not speak up about "bigger" issues, like racism and homophobia.

Levi says he feels a unique responsibility about climate change as a person of color. He points out low-income communities and communities of color often are more vulnerable to impacts.

"African-American people sometimes, most of the time we don't live in as safe, or as strong a neighborhood," Levi says. "Or if we do, then it's in the area that is more greatly affected than some other people that may have better opportunities."

After spending half of his life involved in climate litigation aimed at holding federal and state leaders accountable on fossil fuels, Levi says he wouldn't have it any other way.

"If you were given an opportunity to stop an explosion that would kill everyone, and you're given that opportunity to stop it. If you don't take that opportunity and you survive, that's something that will always be there, that you'll always know that you didn't do something that you could've done," he says. "So I think that if you think about it that way, that if I didn't, if I don't take action, then that will be something that will hang with me, that I'll know that I didn't do something that I could have done."

This story was produced in partnership with Inside Climate News.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amy Green