Young people are finally learning how to play the game — and how to win.
In Montana, 16 people between the ages of 5 and 22 just successfully sued the state’s Legislature for prioritizing fossil fuels over clean energy, thereby violating the young people’s right to “a clean and healthful environment.” In her ruling for Held v. State of Montana, Judge Kathy Seeley wrote, the plaintiffs “have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.”
It’s an impressive win for young people and climate activists.
Unfortunately, it’s not one that could be easily replicated.
At issue wasn’t just a constitutional right to a clean environment — it was a Montana law that explicitly states “an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state’s borders” cannot be considered when approving fossil fuel projects.
Sadly for local environmental activists, West Virginia has no direct corollary.
Our state constitution does declare that West Virginians have certain inherent rights, including “[t]he enjoyment of life and liberty … and of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” and “they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity (descendants)” of those rights. However, even though the Legislature has consistently rolled back emission and pollution standards for the fossil fuel industry, there are technically still mandates for environmental studies and evaluations in place. Young people would have to get more creative to try something like that here.
But we hope that won’t discourage future activists from pushing back against West Virginia’s pro-fossil fuels policies. Perhaps they can find constitutional grounds to insist on stricter standards or at least to challenge the looseness of current rules.
Our young people deserve to grow up in a safe, stable and sustainable environment — not a dystopian hellscape, which is where our world is quickly heading.
Already, weather-related headlines sound like summaries for early-2000s disaster films: ravaging wildfires, destructive storm systems, devastating earthquakes, small-town-shattering tornadoes, shocking flash-floods and deadly cold-snaps, heatwaves and heat domes — and death tolls in the triple-digits.
Young people see how bad things have gotten, and they are painfully aware that extreme weather and climate change-related disasters will only get worse as time goes on — especially if no action is taken now to reverse course. And now young people across the country are pushing back against older generations who are more concerned with short-term gains (and who may not live long enough to experience the consequences of their short-sightedness). Youth activists in Hawaii, Utah, Oregon and Virginia have filed lawsuits similar to the one in Montana, based on similar guarantees in those states’ constitutions.
In response to Seeley’s ruling, a spokesperson for Montana’s attorney general said, “Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate.” True — no one individual or state or even corporation is solely responsible for climate change. Rather, we all contribute to the problem, through policies and personal actions. Therefore, we must all contribute to the solution.
And if it takes a lawsuit to get someone — in this case, a government entity — to do their part, then so be it.