HomeHealthKids want to sue Montana for unhealthy climate policies

Kids want to sue Montana for unhealthy climate policies

Every October for her birthday, Grace Gibson-Snyder and her family explore the Lamar Valley, just inside the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.

Carved out long ago by meandering glaciers, the valley is home to bison and bald eagles, grizzly bears and gray wolves. Gibson-Snyder has seen them all. She calls it “my favorite place.”

“I know how special it is to have this in my life,” said Gibson-Snyder, an 18-year-old from Missoula, Montana, “and I don’t want it to go away.”

That concern, hypothetical not long ago, became tangible in June when unprecedented flooding razed bridges, devastated highways, forced the evacuation of thousands of tourists and temporarily closed the park.

Flooding may shut down parts of Yellowstone for months


Although park officials described the flooding as a rare event, scientists say this type of Extreme weather It should be expected as the climate continues to warm.

It also illustrates why Gibson-Snyder and 15 other young adults and children from Montana are suing their state.

Their lawsuit claims that Montana, by promoting fossil fuels as its main source of energy, is contributing to a deteriorating climate and violating children’s rights. right to a clean and healthy environment guaranteed in the state constitution. By doing so, the suit alleges, Montana is interfering with the children’s health, safety and happiness.

“The state’s dependence on fossil fuels, its energy policy, its continued development of fossil fuel extraction has led to exasperating effects of climate change,” Gibson-Snyder said. “It is a betrayal of the government.”

In 2021, coal-fired power plants produced 43% of Montana’s electricity, compared to hydropower at 41% and wind power at 12%, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

With favorable rulings from a state judge and recently from the Montana Supreme Court, the children’s lawsuit is on track to become the first climate case of its kind to go to trial in the United States. Attorneys for Gibson-Snyder and her fellow plaintiffs, who were between the ages of 2 and 18 when the lawsuit was filed in 2020, believe the case heralds a shift in climate-related litigation that could reverberate around the world.

Already this year, children in Virginia, Utah and Hawaii have filed similar constitutional challenges, and Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm representing them in those actions, said other lawsuits by children in other cases are likely. states by the end of the year. .

“A victory in Montana could very well have implications across the country and potentially even the world,” said Nate Bellinger, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust.

That children exhibit these actions, Bellinger said, shouldn’t be surprising. Our Children’s Trust, she added, routinely hears from young people interested in filing lawsuits against the states where they live.

“They have the most at stake and the most to lose and they are the least powerful group politically,” Bellinger said. “The courts offer them the opportunity to have some of that power to do something to protect their own future.”

Claire Vlases, a plaintiff in the Montana case, said she was too young to vote when the lawsuit was filed.

“There are three branches of government for a reason,” said Vlases, now 19, from Bozeman, Montana. “If I can’t use the other two, this is my way, and it’s a way for kids to make our voices heard.”

claire vlases
Claire Vlases is one of 16 young adults and children suing the state of Montana over energy policy they say doesn’t address climate change.

Nick Ehl

Cases brought by children against their states will unfold after a June 30 US Supreme Court rulingt to limit how the Clean Air Act, the nation’s leading anti-pollution law, can be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Although environmental advocates called the decision an appalling setback in the fight against climate changeLawyers for Our Children’s Trust said the ruling will not affect youth-led constitutional lawsuits against state governments.

However, the Supreme Court’s decision further demonstrates “how important these children’s constitutional climate demands are in addressing the harmful effects of our government-sanctioned fossil fuel program,” said Mat dos Santos, managing attorney at Our Children’s. Trust.

What does the Supreme Court’s EPA decision mean for efforts to curb climate change?


Previous attempts by young people, or on behalf of young people, to force government action on climate change have largely failed. Courts in Washington, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Florida and, earlier this year, Alaska, have dismissed those constitutional challenges.

Another case brought by Our Children’s Trust, Juliana vs. the United States — the subject of a Netflix documentary — was dismissed by a federal court in 2020, though the plaintiffs are awaiting a decision on their motion to refile that lawsuit. Seventeen states, led by Alabama and including Montana, have applied to join the case and oppose its going forward.

In dismissing such cases, judges have often concluded that the remedies sought should not be sought through the courts, but rather through the executive and legislative branches of government.

A judge in Montana, citing the Juliana case, he agreed with that reasoning when he dismissed parts of the lawsuit last summer, but allowed other claims to proceed to trial. Those claims are not saying that Montana isn’t doing enough to stop climate change. Rather, they allege, the state’s actions are causing climate change.

“These are not cases where governments are not acting,” Bellinger said. “Governments are acting. They are promoting fossil fuels and authorizing oil pipelines and power and extraction plants.”

The young plaintiffs in Montana contend that they are harmed by a state energy policy that favors fossil fuels and a law that prohibits state environmental reviews from considering the effects of policies outside of Montana, which they say does not allow a adequate examination of the effects. of climate change.

Those actions affect the environment and your health, the lawsuit states. Children report experiencing, among other medical problems, aggravated asthma, headaches, and throat and eye irritation, mostly caused by pollution from intense fire seasons in Montana.

The threat of worsening weather also has emotional effects, the suit maintains. Gibson-Snyder, for example, said that she is concerned about the well-being of her future children.

“At best, they will grow up in a different environment than me and with the same guilt and fear that I have on this issue,” he said. “In the worst case, they will directly suffer from fires, floods and famines. I think many of my colleagues are going through very similar things.”

Helping in the case of children in Montana is the specific constitutional right to “a clean and healthy environment,” considered among the strongest environmental protections in the nation.

“Our constitution does not require dead fish to float on the surface of our state’s rivers and streams before its far-sighted environmental protections can be invoked,” the Montana Supreme Court concluded in a 1999 case that strengthened a clean environment. and healthy as a “fundamental right”. .”

On June 10, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen filed an emergency motion asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s decision and dismiss the children’s case, which he described as “a climate crusade” and “a plan” that seeks the “radical overhaul of Montana politics.” environmental policy.”

“This lawsuit brings forward a special interest group seeking to circumvent Montana’s political processes and impose, by court order, their preferred climate change policies on the people of the state,” the motion reads.

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 postponed the trial originally scheduled for next February. No new date has been scheduled, although Bellinger expects the case to go to trial in the summer of 2023.

Gibson-Snyder said she is frustrated by her government’s continued opposition to helping end the climate crisis.

“It is rare that you are trusted to solve an international emergency and at the same time you are fired by some of the same people who have that responsibility,” he said. “I remain hopeful that the state will recover and help its citizens.”

Vlases agreed, saying he doesn’t understand resistance to change when there’s a consensus that Montana’s landscape is worth protecting. The inaction of today’s leaders, she said, is an existential threat to her and her peers.

“It feels like we’re wearing second-hand clothes from the past generation,” he said.

khnorth (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces detailed journalism on health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the top three operating programs in KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.

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