The Increased Clout of Youth Climate Activists: The Case of Montana

Environmental Policy Brief #159 | By: Inijah Quadri | September 5, 2023

Photo taken from: thenation.com

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In a world demanding urgent action on climate change, youth activists are going beyond marching with placards and are wielding constitutions as their weapons of choice. A recent landmark case in Montana involved a group of young environmental activists, supported by the organization ‘Our Children’s Trust,’ challenging state policies on constitutional grounds, asserting their right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

This strategy highlights the delicate dance between the drive for development and the pressing need for environmental conservation. The Montana lawsuit might not just be a one-off event—it could herald the dawn of “green amendments” across the legal landscape.

Analysis

The youth activists, ranging from ages 5 to 22, and represented by ‘Our Children’s Trust,’ argued that the government’s insufficient action on climate change violated their constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment. They contended that the state’s policy of evaluating fossil fuel permits—without considering greenhouse gas emissions—was unconstitutional. This approach not only risked their futures but also threatened the integrity of Montana’s cherished ecosystems.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of the activists, marking the first time a U.S. court ruled against a government for violating constitutional rights based on climate change. However, the immediate impacts of the ruling are limited as it is up to the Montana Legislature to determine how to bring the state’s policies into compliance.

The state, represented by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, decried the ruling as “absurd” and plans to appeal. Meanwhile, the youth group and ‘Our Children’s Trust’ hope that lawmakers will respect the state’s constitution and abide by the court’s decision, setting a precedent for similar cases worldwide.

While it is currently unclear if there are any other groups directly supporting the case, the outcome provides significant emotional support for various organizations and activists worldwide seeking to establish a public trust right, human right, or federal constitutional right to a healthy environment.

Broader Implications and Movement

The legal foray in Montana is interconnected with a larger, global youth-driven environmental thrust. There are stories of similar valiant efforts, from the courtrooms of the Netherlands to the streets of New Delhi to the EU. These shared narratives emphasize that we’re witnessing not just isolated events but a cohesive, worldwide youth-led revolution. The Montana case, with its intertwining of legal and environmental narratives, might just be a precursor to more such climate battles.

Conclusion

Youth-led legal actions highlight the delicate balance between developmental needs and environmental conservation. In other words, Children’s Trust argues that Montana’s government was supporting the state’s economic development without considering the impact of that development on the environment and people’s health. While the immediate impact of the Montana ruling remains to be seen, it sets an important legal precedent.

With the battle far from over, and as more states and countries contribute to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is clear that these youth-led legal actions have brought the balance between developmental needs and environmental conservation into the spotlight. Whether through the courts or the streets, more young voices are expected to reshape the discourse on climate change.

Are we on the cusp of a new era of environmental litigation?

Further Engagement Resources

  • Sunrise Movement (https://www.sunrisemovement.org/): A youth-led movement advocating for political action on climate change.
  • Environmental Law Institute (https://www.eli.org/): Offers resources and research on environmental law, including youth-driven legal actions.
  • Our Children’s Trust (https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/): A legal team advocating for the rights of young individuals in the context of environmental challenges.
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