Climate Activism in Action: Youth on the Rise

Younger generations have had enough. They are taking a firm stand against fossil fuels, holding governments and corporations accountable for protecting the environment and safeguarding their future.

Across the globe, younger generations—Gen Zs in particular—are using their voices to combat climate change. In the face of divisive politics, existential environmental threats, global pandemics, and social justice challenges, younger generations are calling out a broken status quo, demanding an urgent reckoning, bold leadership, and a radically better future.

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According to Green Builder Media’s COGNITION Smart Data, 85% of Gen Zs claim that they have greatly been affected by climate change, 64% feel guilty about their negative impact on the environment, and over 80% of these budding leaders believe that they can—and must—step up to make difference in the world. And as these individuals speak out, they are changing the rules of engagement.

Making History in Montana

As one example of youth-driven climate activism, a group of 16 plaintiffs ranging in age from 5-22 won a groundbreaking legal victory last week in when a judge in Montana ruled that state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean environment by allowing fossil fuel development.

The plaintiffs in the suit, Held v. Montana, claimed that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels has led to hotter temperatures, drought conditions, extreme wildfires, and diminished snowpack, thereby negatively impacting their mental and physical health, food supply, and vital ecosystems upon which their future livelihoods depend.

The case revolved around language in Montana’s state constitution that guarantees residents “the right to a clean and healthful environment,” and specifies that the government is responsible for maintaining and improving the environment “for present and future generations.”

In her final decision, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley determined that Montana’s Environmental Policy Act—the policy the state currently uses when evaluating requests for fossil fuel permits—is unconstitutional because it does not allow decision makers to consider climate change and greenhouse gas emissions when approving oil and gas projects.

During the opening arguments, Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell asserted that “Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference. Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator.”

However, Judge Seeley disagreed with that line of reasoning, pointing out that the total emissions from Montana’s 5,000 gas wells, 4,000 oil wells, four oil refineries, and six coal mines equal the amount of carbon dioxide produced by Argentia, the Netherlands, or Pakistan.

Judge Seeley wrote, “Montana is a major emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, in absolute terms, in per person terms, and historically.”  She continued, “Every additional ton of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions exacerbates plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries,” and the residents of Montana “have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.”

Seeley maintained that the state’s attorneys had failed to provide a compelling reason why they were not taking greenhouse gas emissions into consideration when evaluating oil and gas projects, and she asserted that renewable energy is a “technically feasible and economically beneficial” replacement for fossil fuels.

This landmark case—the first climate change lawsuit to reach trial in the U.S.—establishes a precedent not just for protecting the environment, but also for defining the government’s duty to protect citizens from the impacts of climate change today and into the future. It also is the first U.S. case in which a judge ruled against a state government’s policy in favor of protecting a constitutional right related to climate change.

With that said, while Judge Seeley ruled that the state’s current policy is at odds with its constitution, the ruling did not include specific instructions for the Montana government to follow, limiting the real-life impact and leaving implementation to the fossil-fuel friendly state legislature.

Plaintiffs are relieved and hopeful that Montana lawmakers will abide by the court’s decision. However, state officials—who had made several attempts to dismiss the trial—are now taking action to appeal the decision, which means that the case will likely end up in the state Supreme Court.

The Montana Attorney General’s office called the case “absurd” and a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt,” disavowing the state government from any blame or responsibility related to climate change.

The Big Picture

In the Held v. Montana case, climate science was effectively on trial—and won. The ruling substantiated that climate change is real and is fundamentally impacting constitutional rights.

The outcome of the case carries implications for an upsurge of climate change lawsuits targeting companies and governments around the globe.

States, cities, individuals, and businesses are suing fossil fuel behemoths like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell, seeking damages for losses incurred during climate events like wildfires, superstorms, and floods. Negligence is a major argument in these cases, with plaintiffs contending that the fossil fuel companies have been aware of their immensely destructive environmental impact of for decades without taking any remedial actions.

There is also a growing number of lawsuits against state and federal governments for aiding and abetting the fossil fuel industry, and for failing to protect citizens’ constitutional right to clean water, air, and land.

Young plaintiffs in state cases in Hawaii, Utah, and Virginia and a federal case, Juliana v. United States, are drawing hope that their lawsuits will go the way of Held v. Montana—a sentiment that is reverberating all the way into Canada, where young plaintiffs are mounting a surge of lawsuits to hold the government accountable for decisive climate action.

“It’s not simply a political issue. It’s an existential issue,” said Shaelyn Wabegijig, one of seven youth suing Ontario government. “As youth, we are educated on climate science, and we carry the crushing weight of the climate emergency, and we’re putting this knowledge into our actions. Governments must do the same.”

No doubt, the passion, purpose, optimism, and outrage of young generations is creating endemic structural change. In response to climate crisis, these individuals are using their voices—and their social media savvy—to flip the script on our international dialogue.

Expect these individuals to become even more vocal about their passions and concerns over the coming years as they evolve and move into leadership positions in business, politics, and society. 


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