Children and Youth Fighting for a Healthy Future

“I don’t know how you can sit in this courtroom and listen to everything that is put on display and not have a semblance of regret, or even responsibility, to get up and fix these things that we have been told, firsthand, can be fixed.” Lander Busse, Held v MT youth plaintiff

A momentous event for the State of Montana (U.S.) occurred this June – the first constitutional climate change case in the United States. Rikki Held vs. the State of Montana, the trial where 16 youth plaintiffs sued the state government for the right to a clean and healthful environment for current and future generations, created a bright spot in our state’s general resistance to any transition off of fossil fuels. It was just that unreasonable resistance that was dismantled in the Helena courtroom. Nate Bellinger, Senior Staff Attorney for Our Children’s Trust, lauded the youth for discussing “the harms they have each endured at the hands of their own government.”

Climate-oriented Montana nonprofits – including the Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate and the MT Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics – adopted days at court to cheer the plaintiffs on at the beginning and end of each day. Expert witnesses, families of the plaintiffs and climate advocates from across Montana mingled outside of court hours and listened intently during court hours. Attorneys for Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit from Eugene OR, laid out the case like a well-developed story, alternating the testimony of plaintiffs and expert witnesses to hold the interest of the press, the courtroom, the judge, the state’s defense, and the world. The week was a short course in climate science, health, glaciology, clean energy, economics.

The damage to the plaintiff’s health and mental health – that they are disproportionately harmed by climate change – was the essence of the case, with Dr. Lise Van Susteren and myself testifying to the threat to well-being created by the health effects of air pollution and climate change. We noted that these adverse childhood events can create life-long health issues. We also argued that the adults in a child’s life, including the government, trying to protect them will aid their mental health. We, and all the other expert witnesses, noted that every ton of emitted CO2 matters.

Representatives of the State of Montana called the case a meritless publicity stunt. They arrived ill-prepared, with two expert witnesses not appearing, and the lone expert witness for the state botching his facts. The state claimed that Montana’s emissions are too small to matter. They attempted to absolve themselves of responsibility for the forest fires, floods, threats to family livelihood, asthma attacks, and angst disrupting the plaintiffs’ lives.

The state, for their part, argued that these grievances belong in legislature, not a court of law, but we all know that was not how it played out for the tobacco industry.

Solutions to the climate crisis are available, and affordable, and are only limited by Montana government officials who perpetuate our fossil fuel-energy system.

These brave youth inspired the courtroom, the nation and the world. Let us fight the fight for our children’s future, and let us fight with them for their future. Let us fill the courtrooms, the board rooms, the schoolrooms, and exam rooms with adults who are willing to accept responsibility for the future.

Lori Byron (pediatrics) and Lise van Susteren (psychiatry) were honored to provide expert testimony in this trial, hopefully the first of many, with Drs. Jennifer Robohm and Rob Byron providing written testimony. As we await the judge’s decision, preparation continues for a similar trial in Hawaii. May litigation be added to our toolbox of climate actions, each chipping away at the power of the fossil fuel industry.

About the Author

Lori Byron is a general pediatrician and chair of Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate. She is a Climate for Health Ambassador and an active member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a partner of Climate for Health.

Additional Resources

ecoAmerica American Climate Leadership Awards Replication Guides

American Climate Leadership Awards 2023 Broadcast Recording

ClimateRx Website

Climate for Health – Ambassador Training

Climate for Health Resources

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