Montana may be seeing the first youth climate revolt

This is hardly a scientific sampling, but a high school teacher in the Dallas area tells me that her students have two big worries: One is getting shot to death. The other is seeing their neighborhood burn up due to climate change. 

You don’t have to be young to fear gun violence, but the prospect that the planet may become unlivable is of special concern to those who plan to inhabit it for a good while. And this brings us to a remarkable suit initiated by a group of Montana residents between the ages of 5 and 22. 

They charge that Montana’s fossil fuel fetish is destroying the state’s natural splendor, ruining cultural customs and creating an unhealthy environment. They say the state is running afoul of its own constitutional mandate to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”  

We get why much of Montana has become a giant mining pit for coal. It is the fifth biggest producer of coal. But the world is transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy, and there’s no turning back. 

State officials argue that global warming is a global issue. They’re not entirely wrong about that. But then you have their Republican lawmakers backing a law that stops state regulators from even considering climate when approving new power plants, factories and other large-scale projects. 

Strange but true, neighboring Wyoming now taxes wind energy. OK. Wyoming has long been the biggest producer of coal in the country. On the other hand, it has massive open spaces, mighty winds and entrepreneurs who want to harvest them. Why discourage this economic windfall?  

What is climate change doing to Montana? It is melting the glaciers at Glacier National Park and causing floods at Yellowstone National Park. It’s intensifying smoke from wildfires. It’s draining access to the clean water necessary not only for hunting (and associated tourism), but for the survival of its ranching culture. 

One of the young people testifying in support of respecting the constitutional requirement to preserve a healthy environment is 22-year-old Rikki Held. She said that her family’s 3,000-acre ranch has been under siege by the effects of warming temperature — heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires. 

The plaintiffs cited a report in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that there was “a rapidly closing window” to ensure a “livable” future. To that, Montana’s lawyers responded, “I don’t think it’s our government.”  

True, but, you know, their government can be replaced. A 2020 poll out of Tufts University found that nearly a third of voters ages 18 to 29 regard the environment and climate change as their second most important issue – just after health care and above racism. And they have become reliable voters. 

Interestingly, young people in Western states were more likely to cite climate change as a leading concern, as well as Asian youth. The strong turnout of younger voters for the 2022 midterms was largely responsible for stopping the expected “red wave” of Republican victories. By 2024, Millennial and Gen Z voters, a group that tilts heavily Democratic, will outnumber their elders. 

Montana has long feasted on its nickname, “The Last Best Place.” But a parade of catastrophic weather events is dismantling a grandeur that humans will not be able to rebuild. Even Montanans who only care about money should recognize that turning their famous glaciers into puddles and ranches into dead zones cannot be good for the economy. 

Similar suits are being prepared in other states. Montana’s young environmentalists may be the first to launch a successful youth climate revolt. And if they don’t prevail in the courts, there’s always the voting booths. 

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.