George Hobson, conservation advocacy and communications officer for Forest & Bird was still at school in March 2020, when 16 young residents of the US state of Montana filed a lawsuit against their government.
They allege Montana’s pro-fossil fuel policies violate a clause in the state constitution which commits officials, politicians and others to maintaining and improving “a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations”.
The week-long trial, which ended last week, saw many of the 16 plaintiffs, now aged six to 22, testifying about the fear they have for their future, and the mental and physical toll on them of the climate change-induced degradation of their environment.
The case is the first of five youth-led constitutional lawsuits – four state- and one federal-based, heading for trial in the US.
And this is just the beginning, Hobson says.
“Held v Montana is the latest in a series of incredibly exciting cases which prove that young people are not willing to stand by while governments worldwide threaten our future.
“While this case turns on a particular point of the Montana constitution, it should send a signal right across the world: polluters, and those who allow pollution to continue, will be held accountable.”
The harm to young people
A key part of the trial has been evidence that young people are more impacted by climate change than their older counterparts – and not just because they will experience the effects for longer.
Young people’s bodies and brains are still developing, making them more susceptible than adults to the effects of elevated temperatures and polluted air, said Lori Byron, a Montana pediatrician.
They are also potentially more at risk of future physical illness and mental trauma from the stress of the more-frequent extreme weather events being unleashed by climate change.
Washington psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren also testified at the trial. She co-authored a 2021 report in the medical journal The Lancet that asked 10,000 people from 10 countries between the ages of 16 and 25 about their own climate anxiety and whether their countries’ leaders were doing enough.
More than half believed climate change was affecting their daily lives, and two-thirds believed the government’s lack of action was to blame.
In New Zealand, Hobson, now 19, says young people shouldn’t have to fight for action on climate change.
“Evidence presented in the case shows that not only will young people across the globe feel the future impacts of climate change, but they’re also actually already suffering the consequences, both mentally and physically.
“It is simply wrong that we need to go to court to try and protect our future.”
Greenpeace Aotearoa head of campaigns, Amanda Larsson, says the Montana case is a sign of things to come.
“All around the world, more people are taking their governments and polluting companies to court over climate change. These cases are going to keep coming as young people and frontline communities who did the least to cause the climate crisis experience worsening impacts.
“They have a strong moral case to seek loss and damage compensation from the big polluters and governments who failed to regulate them.”
Larsson points to links between Held v Montana and the New Zealand case Smith v Fonterra & Ors, where climate change activist Mike Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu), is suing seven of the country’s largest polluters and fossil fuel producers, claiming harm from their activities.
The case got as far as the Supreme Court and is awaiting a decision.
Meanwhile, in May this year, a group of activist lawyers filed a major legal action against the Government for acting against the advice of the Climate Change Commission last year.
The action in the US will only inspire more people to fight back against corporates and politicians, Larssen says.
“The Montana climate trial could set a precedent and inspire other cases around the world. It’s one reason why the New Zealand Government, and polluting companies like Fonterra, need to start taking meaningful action to reduce emissions.
“The longer they delay, the worse the climate impacts will get. This will expose governments and companies to similar legal cases.”
In the lead-up to New Zealand’s general election in October, a coalition of over 30 environmental and social justice organisations, have launched Climate Shift, a 10-point plan calling for real climate action from all New Zealand political parties, she says. Close to 8000 people have already signed on.
The judge’s ruling in Held v Montana is not expected for several weeks or even months.