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How Kids Are Fighting Climate Change, One Lawsuit at a Time

How is constitutional law being harnessed to address climate change? Ahead of Aspen Ideas: Climate, we caught up with Andrea Rodgers, Senior Attorney at Our Children's Trust, whose environmental law practice is fighting on behalf of young people and future generations.

  • February 16th 2024

Rodgers is co-counsel on the constitutional youth climate lawsuit against the federal government, Juliana v. United States, and lead counsel on similar lawsuits against the states of Washington and Florida. 

Learn how Andrea Rodgers and Our Children’s Trust are helping youth break new legal ground and go behind the scenes of the first-ever constitutional climate trial in U.S. history, Held v. State of Montana. 

Courts in the United States and around the world have begun to recognize that a stable climate is a necessary component of securing for children and our posterity their fundamental rights to life, liberty, and equality.
Andrea Rodgers

Constitutional climate lawsuits have been gaining momentum as a way to help bring about environmental justice, and you’ve noted that climate change will be a major issue litigated in front of the Supreme Court in the years to come. How are you harnessing constitutional law to address climate change? Are there areas where you are breaking new legal ground?

First and foremost, climate change is a children’s human rights issue. The science is unequivocal that children are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of climate change and are being disproportionately burdened by their exposure to a destabilized climate system at the critical time when their bodies and brains are still developing. Youth under the age of 18 lack the right to vote and have limited access to the political process, which is why they are seeking to have their voices heard, and their rights protected, in court.

Fortunately, constitutions around the world are designed to protect the lives, liberties and safety of people, including children. Constitutional rights are foundational and designed to withstand the whims of political majorities. In the U.S., under the 5th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or “equal protection of the laws.” Our Children’s Trust (OCT) made history in 2011 by filling a wave of coordinated legal actions on behalf of youth in 50 states and several countries, and we continue to innovate as we advance our strategies — in the court room and outside to secure a safe climate today, tomorrow, and hopefully for many generations to come. 

In response to the cases that we bring on behalf of youth, OCT is breaking new ground because courts in the United States and around the world have begun to recognize that a stable climate is a necessary component of securing for children and our posterity their fundamental rights to life, liberty, and equality. For example, in 2016, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken announced in our Juliana case: “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” Federal courts have long been called upon to resolve constitutional controversies stemming from harmful majoritarian policies, and the climate change cases the youth are bringing to their courts are on the vanguard of modern-day constitutional litigation.

Held v. State of Montana has been hailed as a major victory for youth-led legal action around climate change. Walk us through that case — what made it successful, and how will it change the legal landscape around environmental issues?

The groundbreaking decision at Held v. State of Montana showcases that youth and others can hold their governments accountable for contributing to climate change and obtain judicially-enforceable remedies designed to protect their fundamental rights.

From June 12 to 20, 2023, the world watched as the first-ever constitutional climate trial in U.S. history commenced in Helena, Montana. In Held v. State of Montana, 16 Montana youth turned to the courts to protect their equal rights to a healthy environment, life, dignity, and freedom, suing the State of Montana to protect their state constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” as well as air, waters, wildlife and public lands that are threatened by drought, heat, fires, smoke, and floods. The youth also asked the court to enforce their rights to life, liberty, health safety, individual dignity, and equality under the Montana Constitution, and declare that Montana's fossil fuel energy policies and actions violate the young people’s state constitutional rights. 

Our legal team at OCT, alongside co-counsel from the Western Environmental Law Center and McGarvey Law, presented a powerful case to Judge Kathy Seeley, while Montanans watched inside the courtroom and people across the state and around the world watched online. The plaintiffs took the stand to tell the court how they have each been harmed by the actions of their own government, which was a pivotal moment in the youth climate movement. Young people finally were heard by the court and government decision-makers. Ten experts — all the very best in their fields — presented clear and precise evidence that documented the anthropogenic roots of the climate crisis, exact causes and impacts stemming from Montana’s perpetuation of a fossil fuel-based energy system, and how these harms devastate Montana’s natural resources and the health of its children. Testimony also laid bare the scientific evidence of how the climate crisis harms young Montanans, the macro and micro economic impacts of continuing “business as usual,” and the corresponding dramatic benefits of already feasible transitions to renewable energy.  

The state of Montana called very few witnesses, deciding at the last minute not to call their primary expert witness on climate science (who was expected to present a case rooted in climate denialism), and instead presented limited evidence arguing a lack of responsibility and claims of minimal climate impact due to state’s actions. 

Every day, when our youth plaintiffs walked up the hill to court, they were greeted and cheered on by a corridor of supporters who also packed the courtroom each day. Over 20 organizations — climate, environmental, human rights, social justice, and youth — from across the state were our steadfast partners, raising awareness, hosting events, and raising funds. Every day, the media filed in and filled the jury box; their stories reached over 12 million viewers during June. Cameras filled the courtroom, and the proceedings were broadcast around the globe. This was all thanks to our advocacy with the court that we had the opportunity to record history in the making.  

On August 14, 2023, for the first time in United States history, a court ruled on the merits of Held v. Montana, that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people. In a sweeping win for our 16 clients, Judge Kathy Seeley declared Montana’s fossil fuel-promoting laws unconstitutional and stopped their implementation. The State of Montana has appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, who denied their request to stay implementation of Judge Seeley’s order, and will hear and decide the case in 2024.

Every case that we bring helps build momentum and creates precedent in the courtroom and in the court of public opinion all over the globe, and the Held decision provides an excellent example of this. Children in all 50 states have rights beyond those in the United States Constitution guaranteed by their state constitution and interpreted by state courts. Throughout history, state courts have been sources of innovation. Many of the rights we cherish were pioneered in state courts. OCT is leveraging our expertise in rights-based climate litigation and our expertise at the intersection of human rights and climate science to support youth-led cases now pending around the world. For example, this year, the European Court of Human Rights’ Grand Chamber is hearing its first climate cases and OCT submitted scientific evidence to the court. The 14 youth plaintiffs we represent in Hawai`i are going to trial on June 26 to get their stories heard and their rights protected. We will continue to innovate and scale the impact of decisions like Held to ensure children’s rights to a safe climate are recognized and protected all around the world.

It is incredible to see how youth have mobilized and organized to protect not just themselves but their communities in the face of the climate crisis. They are not waiting for adults to do the right thing; they have taken it upon themselves to force the change they want to see.
Andrea Rodgers

So much of your work revolves around youth. How do you prepare young people for a future marked by climate crisis without leaving them hopeless?

The young people we represent are very savvy and understand the gravity of the climate crisis and how important it is to get the world off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Many young people have also recently learned about civics in school. They seem to understand the nature of being politically and economically powerless in our constitutional democracy and what it means to be unable to participate in and influence the policy decisions that cause the climate crisis. We are the only non-profit public interest law firm in the world providing science-based legal services exclusively to children to secure their legal rights to a safe climate. We shift the power to them so that their voices are heard in court by key decision makers. We work with and empower the youth to voice their stories in the court, in the media, and on the world stage. We build the capacity of youth plaintiffs to grow as leaders. For our young clients, participating in the judicial system and advocating for themselves, along with their fellow plaintiffs, is a way to maintain their hope and begin the healing process.

We are a trauma-informed law firm and we provide support to all of the 151 young people that we represent, as well as their families and communities. Our staff is trained in trauma-informed lawyering and we work with a trauma specialist to support the youth throughout the litigation process. We not only listen to the youth, but we know that as they are the most impacted group of people, they also have the power and the capacity to help find solutions. We have found that it is vital to support the youth through the litigation process as, for many youth, this is their first introduction to participating in the legal system. It is important for young people to understand that they have a right to access their courts just like other segments of society, in an age-appropriate and trauma-informed manner.

What have you learned from the young people you serve? How are they approaching climate change differently from older generations?

It is a tremendous honor and privilege to represent our young clients and empower them to share with the world just what it is like to live on the frontlines of climate change. They are experiencing things in their lives that are incredibly difficult to live through: losing their homes due to wildfire and floods; being forced to stay inside for days and weeks at a time when wildfire smoke shrouds the skies; having to evacuate and being unable to attend school for extended periods of time because of extreme weather events. These kinds of disruptions take a significant toll when they are happening repeatedly to people who are so young.

Despite these difficult hardships, it is incredible to see how youth have mobilized and organized to protect not just themselves but their communities in the face of the climate crisis. They are not waiting for adults to do the right thing; they have taken it upon themselves to force the change they want to see. They do this while leading the busy lives of young people, with school, extracurricular activities, and friends. Our young clients have hope for a brighter and more sustainable future and don’t understand why the thumb has been put on the political scales to favor fossil fuels in the face of so much devastation. The youth are tremendously powerful and see a different way forward. They don’t focus on the barriers, but on what is possible, a lesson we all would do well to follow.

The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Digital Editor and Producer, Aspen Ideas

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