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Meet One of the Teens Suing Montana over Climate Crisis. She Says Planet’s Future Is at Stake

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Image Credit: Robin Lozak (center)

Editor’s Note: On Aug. 14 a Montana state judge ruled in favor of the young people who sued Montana in the landmark case.

A highly anticipated court ruling is expected soon in Montana, where a groundbreaking, youth-led climate trial just ended after five days of dramatic testimony on who can be held responsible for the climate crisis. The landmark case was led by 16 children and young adults, ranging in age from 5 to 22, who accuse the state of Montana of violating their constitutional rights as it pushed policies that encouraged the use of fossil fuels, devastated the environment and severely impacted their health. The case is the first of its kind to go to trial in the United States, and a federal judge in Oregon just cleared the way for another children’s climate case against the U.S. government. For more, we are joined by Grace Gibson-Snyder, a 19-year-old plaintiff in the Montana case, and by Nate Bellinger, lead attorney in the trial.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to Montana, where a youth-led climate trial just ended after five days of dramatic testimony on who can be held responsible for the climate crisis. The landmark case was led by 16 children and young adults ranging in age from 5 to 22. They accused the state of Montana of violating their constitutional rights as it pushed pro-fossil fuel policies that devastated the environment and severely impacted their health. The case is the first of its kind to go to trial in the United States and focuses on a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act that blocks Montana from considering how its energy economy may contribute to the climate crisis. A ruling is expected in the coming weeks.

We’re joined from Missoula, Montana, by Grace Gibson-Snyder. She’s a 19-year-old plaintiff in the landmark Held v. State of Montana climate trial. She was 16 when it started. And we’re joined by Nate Bellinger, lead attorney in the trial, senior attorney at the public interest nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Nate Bellinger, let’s begin with you. Lay out the legal theory of this case.

NATE BELLINGER: Sure. So, this case argues that the state of Montana is violating the constitutional rights of these 16 youth plaintiffs by affirmatively promoting fossil fuels as the state’s primary energy resource. So, all of the fossil fuels in Montana that are being extracted, transported, burned, that’s all being done with authorization and permits from the government. And those fossil fuels are resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions that are exacerbating the climate crisis, harming the youth plaintiffs, and, ultimately, we argue, violating their constitutional rights.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Grace Gibson-Snyder, could you explain what made you get involved in this lawsuit, and what you hope comes out of it?

GRACE GIBSON-SNYDER: Of course. So, my first memory of thinking about climate change, I was about 5 years old. And my best friend is from the Marshall Islands. And we heard that because of climate change, the Marshall Islands would be underwater within 50 years or so. And so we made posters that said “Save the Marshall Islands” and hung them up around our neighborhood. I remember spelling “ocean” O-S-H-I-N. I saw that on a picture of the posters recently.

And then, from there, in high school, I started getting involved with kind of local organizations and organizing against plastic waste. But through that and through the research I was doing, I realized that as much work as I put in on the local level, as much change as we made here, it would always be less efficient than having policy change.

And so, then I started looking for ways to get involved at a kind of statewide level, and I found out about Our Children’s Trust through a club that I was in at school called Students Against Violating the Environment. And I reached out to Our Children’s Trust and started talking with the attorneys about what being a plaintiff would entail. I asked my parents for permission, eventually. And then, three-and-a-half years later, here we are.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nate, if you could tell us how the Montana state government has responded? I just saw a note saying that — quoting a spokesperson for the Montana state attorney general saying that the lawsuit is, quote, “a publicity stunt staged by an out-of-state organization that has exploited well-intentioned children and forced Montana taxpayers to foot the bill.”

NATE BELLINGER: Yeah, so, the state of Montana has largely responded with statements such as that you just read, which are not legal defenses. And the reason why they’re not — why they’re responding this way is because they don’t have strong legal arguments to defend the case. We presented compelling expert testimony from Montana’s top climate scientists about Montana’s role in causing and contributing to climate change, and the state doesn’t really have a defense to that. They called one expert at trial. They didn’t have any climate scientists. And their main defense, really, is Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are too small in the global scheme of things to matter. But we provided expert testimony at court to show that Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are significant, both nationally and globally, especially when you already have a dangerous situation with dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and an ongoing climate crisis.

So, Montana’s emissions are significant. They’re exacerbating the climate crisis. And the state really doesn’t have any defense to that or to their ongoing use of fossil fuels, so they resort to these kind of, you know, statements such as accusing us of using the youth plaintiffs. But anybody who heard any of the plaintiffs testify at trial know that is totally not true, and these plaintiffs have really deeply compelling and personal reasons for being involved in this case and for needing to protect their rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Grace Gibson-Snyder, I want to make sure you have the last word. You had to cancel soccer practice, your school, because of the smoke. Can you talk about the response of the fossil fuel industry in Montana and the ages of your co-plaintiffs? You testified in the trial. We were showing images of you. From 5 years old to 22?

GRACE GIBSON-SNYDER: Yeah. So, we all have experienced climate change in different capacities. You mentioned soccer. And for me, that was a big one. I grew up playing soccer. I played through high school. And I had, I mean, a handful, at least, of practices and games canceled or postponed every year because of the wildfire smoke, which gets so dense here towards the end of every summer and in the early fall that it’s dangerous to be outside. It’s dangerous exercise, for sure. And so, that’s exacerbated by climate change and drier forests and higher temperatures.

I’ve also seen melting glaciers in Glacier National Park, which, of course, is a landmark of Montana’s landscape. And watching those glaciers melt is such a devastating thing, because it’s so iconic for the state. It’s so essential for the well-being of the people and of the environment here. And it’s just beautiful. And I would hate to be a part of a future where that’s not present, where that’s not a thing that my kids get to grow up with. And so, you know, those are my impacts.

And the plaintiffs in the case have, you know, everything from respiratory illnesses that are exacerbated by climate change to a cattle ranch where the cattle are dying because of drought and famine and etc. And so, it’s been — we all have experiences in different capacities.

But, you know, I’m bolstered by the fact that Montana is fundamentally reliant upon but also super appreciative of the natural environment. And that’s what —

AMY GOODMAN: Grace Gibson-Snyder, we have to leave it there, 19-year-old plaintiff in the Montana trial. Thanks to Nate Bellinger. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks for joining us.

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“Watershed Moment”: Montana Rules Youth Have Constitutional Right to Healthy Climate

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