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Judge sides with young activists in climate change trial in Montana


Climate activists in Montana are celebrating a court victory, in particular, young climate activists. These are plaintiffs aged 5 to 22. They allege that Montana's energy policies violated their right to a clean and healthful environment, which is guaranteed in their state's constitution. The state judge agreed, marking the first time that a U.S. court has ruled that the government violated the rights of rising generations by promoting fossil fuels. Similar cases are in other courts. Julia Olson is founder and chief legal counsel at Our Children's Trust, which is the group that brought the Montana lawsuit. She's on the West Coast. Welcome to the program.

JULIA OLSON: Thank you. It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: Well, thanks for joining us so early. What specifically did the state do wrong, in your view?

OLSON: The state adopted laws and then implemented them to really promote a fossil fuel energy regime. And these youth brought this case to have that conduct and those laws declared unconstitutional, as violating their state constitutional rights, including their rights to dignity and health and safety and happiness. And this is really a landmark decision. Never before in the United States has a court held that promoting fossil fuel energy and ignoring climate change is unconstitutional.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure that we're very clear on what the court found that Montana did wrong. It's not just that they allowed fossil fuel production, right? They could do that. The problem is they forbade the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in granting permits. Is that the specific issue that is the heart of this?

OLSON: Yeah, Montana had laws on the books that said that they should issue fossil fuel permits and ignore climate change while doing so. And the court said that not only were these laws unconstitutional, but that every ton of greenhouse gas emissions that the state of Montana is responsible for through its extraction and its burning of fuels is contributing to the climate crisis and the constitutional injuries of these youth and children in the state of Montana.

INSKEEP: I'm curious why you chose to pursue this case with young plaintiffs.

OLSON: Well, at Our Children's Trust, we've been working on representing youth since 2010. So this has been a decision that is 13 years in the making. And we represent youth. It's all we do. And we sue governments for their role in contributing to and causing the climate crisis because young people deserve to be represented on this issue that will impact them the most. These are their lives, their health, their safety and their futures at stake. And...

INSKEEP: I'm curious if a young person has more standing in court for a lawsuit of this kind. Someone might say to an older person, well, you'll be dead by the time this has any particular impact, but a young person might have a stronger argument.

OLSON: Well, what Judge Seeley found is that children and youth are disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis, but they're being harmed today. And it is also true that they have more longevity on the planet than older folks do, so they will live with the consequences of the decisions made today far longer.

INSKEEP: Now, as I understand it, Montana disagrees with this decision. They intend to appeal. It is not the highest court that you could get to. So they will try to make this decision go away. But suppose that it stands. What would you expect the state to do in order to comply?

OLSON: Right. They will take it to the state Supreme Court. But right now, the judge's ruling is binding on the state. And what that means is the laws that were declared unconstitutional are essentially off the books. They can't be implemented. And the state needs to begin to look at its fossil fuel regime and figure out ways that it can start decarbonizing its system so that it doesn't continue contributing to these severe injuries and constitutional violations of the youth of Montana.

INSKEEP: OK, so oil and gas drilling doesn't stop tomorrow if this stays in effect, but they have to think about the future.

OLSON: Well, they can't authorize more oil and gas development and coal development in the state of Montana under this opinion. And then they will need to transition and, by the year 2050, really be off of fossil fuels, which is completely feasible. There's immense opportunity for clean, renewable energy in Montana. And that's the good news of this opinion.

INSKEEP: Julia Olson, founder of Our Children's Trust, thanks so much.

OLSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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