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A Win for Planet Earth

A group of kids and young adults won a lawsuit claiming that their state violated their right to a safe environment.
A group of children and young adults pose for a photo in front of a building.
William Campbell/Getty Images News
Thirteen of the plaintiffs in the Held v. Montana case pose for a photo. The plaintiffs were all children or young adults.

A group of kids, teens, and young adults scored a courtroom victory in August 2023, winning a lawsuit claiming that the state of Montana was violating their right to a clean and safe environment. The trial was the first of its kind in the United States, but it might not be the last.

The group of 16 plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in 2020, when they ranged in age from 2 to 19. The case was called Held v. Montana, after the oldest plaintiff, Rikki Held. The lawsuit claimed that Montana state agencies allowed the production of fossil fuels without considering their effect on the climate. When burned, fossil fuels create gases such as carbon dioxide, which contribute to climate change. Montana’s state constitution guarantees citizens a clean and healthy environment.

In her ruling, Judge Kathy Seeley wrote that Montana residents “have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.”

“I knew that we would win because we had such a strong case. This is about protecting our basic human rights,” said Held, who is now 22. 

Austin Knudsen, Montana’s attorney general, says he will appeal the decision. This means he’ll take the case to a more powerful court and ask for the decision to be reversed. The state had argued that the carbon dioxide produced there has little or no effect on climate change because it’s a tiny fraction of all the carbon dioxide produced in the world.

Experts say Judge Seeley’s decision sets a major precedent (meaning that courts will consider it when looking at similar cases). Currently, young people are suing several states, claiming that their right to a healthy environment has not been protected. In another climate case, a group of young people is suing the U.S. government.

The outcomes of these lawsuits will answer an important question. Do governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from the effects of climate change?

Did You Know?

Planet Earth, wind turbines, solar panels, grass, and trees.
© Tn/stock.adobe.com

A growing number of countries are promising to achieve net-zero emissions. “Net-zero emissions” means that harmful greenhouse gas emissions created by human activities are exactly balanced out by action that reduces these emissions.

To reach net-zero emissions, we need to rely less on fossil fuels and more on energy sources that don’t contribute to climate change, like solar (the Sun) and wind.

Planet Earth: A Progress Report

Arnaud Bouissou—MEDDE/COP Paris
World leaders signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, at the United Nations Climate Change Conferences (COP21).

In 2015, 196 nations signed the Paris Agreement, an international treaty to curb climate change. (Additional nations joined the agreement later.) The goal of the treaty is to limit the increase in the global average temperature. Originally, nations set that limit to less than 2 degrees Celsius above the global average temperature before the Industrial Revolution, a time between 1880 and 1900 when the use of pollution-producing machinery increased. Since the Paris Agreement was signed, climate experts have said that increases in world temperatures should be limited to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the end of this century. 

That’s the target. To reach it, nations need to find ways to lower their greenhouse gas emissions. So far, research suggests that only a few countries, including Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Nepal, Nigeria, Norway, and the United Kingdom, are making significant progress.

The Work Continues

Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images
What are nations doing to address climate change? You can read more at Britannica.

WORD OF THE DAY

antecedent

PART OF SPEECH:
noun
Definition:
: something that came before something else and may have influenced or caused it
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