How Young People Took Climate Change to Court and Won
By Francesca Segrè

When Kian Tanner was 14 years old and Sariel Sandoval was 17, they joined a group of 14 other young plaintiffs in suing the State of Montana for violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment. This summer, with the help of Redwood City trial lawyer Philip Gregory, they won an historic climate case, Held v. State of Montana. The judge in the case found that Montana’s ongoing promotion of fossil fuels violated the children’s state constitutional rights while ignoring climate impacts.

On October 3, at a program called “The Climate Fight of Their Lives” hosted by Sustainable San Mateo County, Kian, Sariel and their lawyer told their story to a group of 80 people, including teenagers, gathered in the Burlingame Community Center.

The young plaintiffs hold notes of support received from fellow young Montanans in June 2023.

Kian Tanner, who is from Big Fork, Montana, and is now a 17-year-old sports management student at St. Mary’s College in Moraga said, “I didn’t want to have to deal with climate change, but I’m glad to have taken it onto my shoulders so future generations don’t have to.” He explained that he’s been an avid skier, fly fisherman and soccer player since he was very young and that as the smoke season has gotten longer and longer, it has impacted his ability to spend time outdoors “in nature, where I belong.”

From left, Phil Gregory, Sariel Sandoval and Kian Tanner greet the crowd.

Sariel Sandoval, now 20, introduced herself to the crowd in her native language of Salish. She is a member of the Salish, Navajo and Pend d’Oreille tribes, and is from the Flathead Reservation in rural Montana. She’s a student at U.C. Berkeley majoring in math and Native American studies. She explained how, for generations, her tribes have had a tradition of gathering medicinal plants to cure various ailments. “Our people have always had a relationship with our land. Our land has always been there to keep us healthy. We can’t use it and toss it away.” She said the ruling in favor of the young people made her feel heard.

Attorney Gregory explained that, as part of the nonprofit public interest law firm Our Children’s Trust, he and the trial team called young plaintiffs as well as adult scientific experts to testify about how fossil fuels hasten climate change and have a disproportionate impact on children’s lives. Since 1972, Montana’s constitution has entitled residents to the “right to a clean and healthful environment.” But in April of this year, the legislature made a change to the Montana Environmental Policy Act that prohibited agencies from considering the effects of greenhouse gas emissions when issuing permits for energy projects.

In August, the judge hearing the Held case ruled the state could no longer ignore greenhouse gas emissions and climate change when conducting environmental reviews. In the first legal opinion of its kind, the judge wrote, “Montana’s GHG emissions cause and contribute to climate change and Plaintiff’s injuries and reduces the opportunity to alleviate Plaintiff’s injuries.”

Gregory said, “We know the executive and legislative branches are going to do ‘bupkis’ about it, so we went to the judiciary to do something.” He said youth are disproportionately impacted by climate change but can’t vote, so the only way to affect change is through the courts. As far as going after the fossil fuel industry directly? “The fossil fuel industry can’t do what it does if the government doesn’t approve it,” said Gregory.

The state is appealing the Held decision, and Gregory and Our Children’s Trust hope to be arguing before the Montana Supreme Court in April 2024. They are also litigating in Juliana v. United States, which argues that the federal government’s actions are causing climate change and violating the youngest generation’s constitutional right to life, liberty and property, and that the government has failed to protect essential public trust resources. Gregory and Our Children’s Trust are also litigating on behalf of young people in Hawaii (Navahine v. Hawai‘i State Department of Transportation), Utah (Natalie R. v. State of Utah) and Virginia (Layla H. v. Commonwealth of Virginia).

In November 2024, Gregory expects to see green amendments on ballots across the nation that will seek to enshrine environmental protections.

When asked why he does this work, Gregory pulled out his phone and showed a picture of his three grandchildren who live in San Jose. “When my grandchildren ask me, ‘Papa, what did you do during the climate wars?’ I’ll be able to say I tried my hardest to shut down fossil fuels.”

This program was sponsored by Burlingame’s Parks and Recreation Department and cosponsored by 350 Silicon Valley, Acterra, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Citizens Environmental Council, Climate Reality Bay Area’s San Mateo County Policy Action Squad, Peninsula Clean Energy and Thrive Alliance

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