Every October for her birthday, Grace Gibson-Snyder and her family tour the Lama Valley, just inside the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
Long ago carved through glaciers, the valley is home to bison and bald eagles, grizzly bears and gray wolves. Gibson-Snyder has seen them all. He calls it “my favorite place”.
“I know how special it is in my life,” said Gibson-Snyder, 18, from Missoula, Montana, “and I don’t want it to go away.”
This concern, presumably, not too long ago, turned into reality in June when unprecedented floods caused bridges to collapse, roads to collapse, forcing thousands of tourists to evacuate and temporarily closing the park.
Although park officials have described the flooding as a rare occurrence, scientists say such extreme weather should be expected as the climate continues to warm.
It further explains why Gibson-Snyder and 15 other Montana young adults and children are suing their state.
Their lawsuit alleges that Montana – which encourages fossil fuels as its primary energy source – is contributing to a deteriorating climate and violating children’s rights in a clean and healthy environment enshrined in the state constitution. In doing so, the lawsuit alleges, Montana is interfering with children’s health, safety and well-being.
Gibson-Snyder said the state’s dependence on fossil fuels, its energy policy, and the continued development of fossil fuel emissions have all led to the worrying effects of climate change. “This is a betrayal of the government.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2021, coal-fired power plants generated 43% of Montana’s electricity, with hydropower 41% and wind power 12%.
With a state judge and a recent Montana Supreme Court ruling in favor, the children’s case is on its way to becoming the first climate case to go to trial in the United States. Attorneys for Gibson-Snyder and his fellow plaintiffs – ages 2-18 when the lawsuit was filed in 2020 – believe the lawsuit initiates a change in climate-related litigation that could resonate worldwide.
Already this year, children in Virginia, Utah and Hawaii have filed similar constitutional challenges, and the Hour Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm that represents them in those activities, said other lawsuits by children in other states are likely by the end of the year.
“The impact of a win in Montana could have repercussions across the country and possibly even the world,” said Net Bellinger, an attorney for the Hour Children’s Trust.
Bellinger said the children are coming up with these tasks, no wonder. Our Children’s Trust, he added, regularly hears from young people interested in filing lawsuits against the state in which they live.
“They are the most at risk and have the most to lose and they are the least politically strong team,” Bellinger said. “The court gives them a chance to get some of that power to do something to protect their own future.”
Montana plaintiff Claire Vlaces noted that she was too young to vote at the time the lawsuit was filed.
“There are three branches of government for a reason,” said Vlaces, a 19-year-old from Montana Bozeman. “If I can’t use the other two, it’s my way, and it’s a way for kids to hear our voices.”
The Clean Air Act – the country’s main anti-pollution law – will expose child lawsuits against their states after a June 30 Supreme Court ruling limiting how they can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. . Although environmental lawyers have called the decision a serious blow to the fight against climate change, Hour Children’s Trust attorneys said the ruling would not affect youth-led constitutional cases brought against the state government.
Matt Dos Santos, managing attorney for Our Children’s Trust, said the Supreme Court decision, however, further demonstrates “how important these children’s constitutional climate lawsuits are in tackling the detrimental effects of our government-approved fossil fuel program.”
Previous efforts by young people – or on behalf of young people – to force government action against climate change have largely failed. Courts in Washington, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Florida and Alaska earlier this year dismissed those constitutional challenges.
Another lawsuit was filed by the Hour Children’s Trust. Juliana v. United States – The subject of a Netflix documentary – was dismissed by a federal court in 2020, although plaintiffs are awaiting their speedy decision to re-file that lawsuit. Seventeen states, including Alabama and Montana, have asked to join the lawsuit and have opposed moving forward.
When dismissing these cases, judges often conclude that the remedies sought should be pursued not by the courts but by the executive and legal branches of government.
Citing a judge in Montana Juliana The lawsuit agreed with that argument when dismissing parts of the lawsuit last summer but allowed other claims to proceed with the trial. These claims do not claim that Montana is not doing enough to stop climate change. Rather, they allege, the state’s actions are causing climate change.
“These are not incidents where governments are failing to act,” Bellinger said. “The government is working. They are promoting fossil fuels and allowing pipelines and power plants and extraction. “
Montana’s young plaintiffs feel they have been harmed by a state power policy that favors fossil fuels and a law that prohibits state environmental reviews from considering the impact of policies outside of Montana, which they say does not allow for accurate testing of the effects. Climate change.
These actions affect the environment and their health, the lawsuit claims. The children reported, among other medical problems, excessive asthma, headaches, and sore throats and eyes, mostly due to contamination from the intense fire season in Montana.
The growing climate threat also has psychological implications, the case maintains. Gibson-Snyder, for example, said she was concerned about the welfare of any child of her own future.
“At best, they will grow up in a different environment from me and I have this problem with the same guilt and fear,” he said. “Worst of all, they will suffer direct fires, floods and famines. I think a lot of my colleagues are going through the same thing. “
Assistance to children in Montana is a specific constitutional right to a “clean and healthy environment”, which is considered one of the strongest environmental protections in the country.
“Our Constitution does not require that our far-sighted environmental protection be called for before dead fish float on the surface of rivers and streams in our state,” the Montana Supreme Court concluded in a 1999 case that strengthening a clean and healthy environment as a “fundamental right.” Has done. “
On June 10, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen submitted an urgent motion asking the state Supreme Court to dismiss the lower court and dismiss the children’s case, which he described as “a climate crusade” and “a scheme” to denounce Montana’s radical Want overhaul “. Environmental policy. “
“The case features a special interest group that seeks to disrupt Montana’s political processes and – by judicial fiat – to impose its preferred climate change policies on the people of the state,” the resolution said.
Four days later, the Montana Supreme Court denied the request. At the request of the attorney general who wanted more time to prepare, the state judge originally adjourned the trial scheduled for next February. A new date has not been set, although Bellinger hopes the case will go to trial in the summer of 2023.
Gibson-Snyder said he was disappointed with his government’s continued opposition to helping end the climate crisis.
“It’s strange to rely on the resolution of international emergencies, when some people who have that responsibility are fired,” he said. “I hope the state will come closer and help its citizens.”
Vlaces agreed, saying he did not understand the resistance to change if there was a consensus to protect Montana’s landscape. The inaction of today’s leaders, he said, is an existential threat to him and his peers.
“It looks like we’re wearing past-generation hand-me-downs,” he said.
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