Youth Planting the Seeds for Climate Justice

A court house, the earth, a seedling sprouting; hand drawn doodles across the image.

Across the world, young plaintiffs are demanding protections from government-endorsed and climate change-induced harms. Recent cases show a growing momentum in these battles for a clean and safe environment.

On August 14, 2023, 16 youth plaintiffs celebrated after Judge Kathy Seeley of Montana’s First Judicial District issued her decision in Held v. State of Montana. The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in early 2020, claiming that the state and several state agencies violated their state constitutional rights, including an inalienable right to “a clean and healthful environment” and a constitutional mandate that the state “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

After the June 2023 trial, the court found that the plaintiffs established that a Montana law that prohibits the state and its agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions or climate change in environmental reviews violates these fundamental constitutional protections. This law, which limits the environmental review process of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, is known as “the MEPA Limitation.”

Judge Seeley found that the MEPA Limitation “constrains Defendants from making fully informed decisions” about “the scope and scale of the impacts to the environment and Montana’s children and youth when conducting environmental reviews.” As a result, the statute violated the fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment.

Judge Seeley’s decision uprooted another legislative barrier to the regulation of greenhouse gases in the state. While the case was pending, the state legislature and governor passed a law to eliminate the remedies available under MEPA for failure to assess greenhouse gas emissions or climate impacts in an environmental review. Judge Seeley found the law would deprive MEPA litigants of “the preventative remedies [of] vacatur and injunction.” Judge Seeley found such remedies to be an “essential aspect of the State’s efforts to meet its constitutional obligations,” including the duty “to provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.” She declared the law unconstitutional as well.

This victory for Montana youth can be attributed to the forceful case that the plaintiffs put on during the trial. Almost one-fifth of Judge Seeley’s decision detailed the climate change-induced harms experienced by the plaintiffs as established through their “unrefuted” testimony at trial. These include physical and mental health harms – like respiratory complications, anxiety, and distress – and economic and cultural losses – like the loss of access to traditional food sources and economic opportunities long relied on by their families. Judge Seeley found that “[c]hildren are uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, which harms their physical and psychological health and safety, interferes with family and cultural foundations and integrity, and causes economic deprivations.” The defendants in Held have until November 9th, 2023 to decide to appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

Similar efforts demanding preventive and remedial actions to reduce climate impacts are multiplying around the world. In Hawai‘i, 14 youth plaintiffs are preparing for a 2024 trial in the case of Navahine F. v. Hawai‘i Department of Transportation. Those plaintiffs seek to establish that the state’s transportation system unconstitutionally emits high levels of greenhouse gases. The claims in the Hawai‘i case also rely on a state constitutional protection guaranteeing “the right to a clean and healthful environment . . . including control of pollution and conservation, protection, and enhancement of natural resources.” In the cases of Natalie R. v. State of Utah and Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia, youth plaintiffs seek protection of their rights to life and liberty afforded by their respective state constitutions, which the youth argue are violated by each state’s ongoing and systematic fossil fuels development. Both groups have appealed from lower court decisions dismissing their cases and are awaiting oral argument scheduling.

At the federal level, 21 youth plaintiffs in the case of Juliana v. U.S are preparing for trial after they were recently allowed to amend their complaint, originally filed against the U.S. government in 2015. The plaintiffs argue that the federal government violated their “constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources” through their “affirmative actions that cause climate change.” The plaintiffs “are seeking a judicial declaration that the U.S. fossil fuel energy system is unconstitutional and violates their fundamental right to a safe climate.” Finally, across the Atlantic, six Portuguese youth are scheduled for a September 27, 2023 trial against “32 countries [ ] before the European Court of Human Rights for failing to do their part to avert climate catastrophe.”

With these actions, young plaintiffs are certainly demonstrating their resilience in the face of rising emissions and increasing climate-related harms.