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The legal strategy young people are leveraging to address the climate crisis


There's a growing legal strategy to address the climate crisis, and young people are at the center of it. The strategy focuses on states with constitutions that protect people's health and environmental rights. Montana, for example, explicitly provides for the right to a clean environment in its state constitution. In Utah, the constitution guarantees the right to life, health and safety. So in pending litigation, young plaintiffs allege that these state governments are infringing upon those rights by promoting fossil fuels, which increase pollution and accelerate the climate crisis. And there's another suit coming. A similar case is expected to be filed against the state of Hawaii regarding the government's greenhouse gas emissions.

We wanted to learn more about this, so we called Julia Olson. She is chief legal counsel for Our Children's Trust, one of the firms representing the plaintiffs. And she's with us now from Eugene, Ore. Julia Olson, thanks so much for joining us.

JULIA OLSON: Thank you, Michel, for having me. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So tell me about the young people at the center of these lawsuits. They're from, as we said, a number of states, Montana, Hawaii. Tell us a little bit about them.

OLSON: They come to these cases and have asked to be plaintiffs and be represented by Our Children's Trust and our partners because they're already experiencing the injuries from the climate crisis - and many of them specifically to their health. For example, in Montana and in Utah, there are young people who are living in some of the most polluted air in the country, and it is being exacerbated by the climate wildfires that are increasing every year out west and really compromising their lungs and the development of their growing bodies.

MARTIN: Can you talk a little bit about - like, just let's talk about the case that's already pending in Montana. I'd love to know what the status of it is. And could you just talk a little about, like, the specifics of it? Like, what state actions are you challenging there?

OLSON: So Held v. the State of Montana - it's a case brought by 16 young Montanans. And Montana is unique among some of the states in that it has a constitutional provision that expressly protects the people of Montana's right to a clean and healthful environment. And so they're using that constitutional provision and saying that the policies that Montana has on the books right now require the state to promote fossil fuel development in Montana. And that development is leading to the kinds of climate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that is exacerbating the harm to these young people. So they're asking the court to look at the evidence, hold the trial, which will be coming up in February of 2023 and to say that, based on this evidence, these laws that require governments to promote fossil over clean energy are unconstitutional and violating the rights of the youth.

MARTIN: A number of the states that you're working in are states with just a very long history of deeply conservative leadership, and in some cases, getting more so. So I was wondering, why bring these cases in states that have not made climate crisis a priority? In fact, the people, you know, I could make an argument that in one of these states in particular, the leadership is moving farther to the right. So, I mean, is there any - was there any sort of broader thought to that? Or was this mainly focused on the states that have that specific language in their constitutions as a way to move the issue forward?

OLSON: I mean, I think it's really important that young people are in the courts and suing governments of states like Montana and Utah that do have more conservative leadership. And the reason is these states are really important producers of fossil right now. They're exacerbating the crisis. And, you know, when I think of the word conservative, these states actually have a very long history of looking at conservation and protecting the air and water and natural resources of these states. That actually as part of the legacy of places like Montana. And so what the youth are doing is really tapping into that - the constitutional roots of this right and speaking to conservatives about things that conservatives have always really deeply cared about. And so, for example, in Utah, the claim there is a right-to-life claim, these young people who are being physically harmed by the air quality in Utah that they have to live with each day. They're saying, hey, this is harming our right to health and safety today. And it's threatening our lives in the future and the longevity of our lives. And those are deeply conservative arguments.

MARTIN: Let me go back to something you said earlier. You said you think it's really important for young people to be in the courts as part of this broader effort to address the climate crisis. So can I just ask you about those two things separately? Why do you think it's particularly important for young people to be involved and also for young people to be in the courts?

OLSON: So we're in a crisis. And I think that only the constitutions of the United States in our various states can truly protect these young people's rights to have a safe and stable climate system. And children, people under the age of 18 are the politically powerless citizens in our country. They don't get to vote. They don't get to elect people. And they don't have money to lobby. But there's a really strong lobby in this country to keep fossil in place. And it's been very successful and continues to be successful across both Republican and Democratic administrations. The only way to break that political cycle is to go to fundamental rights and say politicians and voters don't get to decide that we have to keep pushing fossil in this country because it's violating the basic rights of children, and it needs to end.

MARTIN: Julia Olson is chief legal counsel for Our Children's Trust. She joined us from Eugene, Ore. Julia Olsen, thanks so much for talking with us today.

OLSON: Thank you, Michel. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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