Intergenerational fairness win for young in Montana

Sylvan Lutz IF Researcher discusses the ruling in Montana that found the government’s failure to account for greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel development harms young people and violates their right to a “clean and healthful environment.” This is an important paradigm shift in how we think about the relationship between environmental health and the well-being of future generations.

In a decision set to resonate through space and time, a Montana court has ruled in favour of a group of young people who alleged that the state violated their rights to a “clean and healthful” environment by pursuing policies that increased fossil fuel development. The group of 16 young people that brought the case against the state ranged from five to 22 years of age and represented those who will suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change – young people and future generations. This groundbreaking legal precedent not only supports the environmental rights of the present generation but also the well-being of those to come.

Climate change is reducing young people’s quality of life

The Montana court ruling’s significance is rooted in the interconnectedness between environmental health and human well-being. The case centred around the plaintiffs proving that their quality of life was being reduced by the environmental impacts of climate change and then proving that actions in Montana meaningfully contributed to climate change.

During a two-week trial in June, the plaintiff’s attorneys showed the court that hotter temperatures, increased droughts, and wildfires, along with an array of other environmental impacts, were driven by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events are reducing young people’s quality of life and ability to enjoy a healthy environment.

Mica, 15, one of the plaintiffs who suffers from asthma, told the court how significantly his life is affected by reduced environmental quality. He told the court that he feels “trapped” by wildfire smoke that prevents him from being active in the summers and described himself as “a prisoner” in his own home. Unfortunately, the impact of climate change on the lives of young people is only increasing as more GHGs are added to the atmosphere.

Every ton of greenhouse gas matters

Next, the plaintiffs had to prove that GHG emissions were significantly impacting the climate change that was reducing young people’s quality of life. The court found that Montana’s carbon dioxide emissions were significant to the environmental impacts of climate change, both in Montana and around the world. The court also found that Montana’s emissions could be reduced with a different policy mix which would better uphold a “clean and healthful” environment. This part of the ruling highlights that we are all responsible for the state of the environment we bequeath to future generations. Every ton of GHG emissions matters.

While this is a significant paradigm shift, the government has vowed to appeal the decision and the actual implications will be decided by the state legislature and is limited to fossil fuel development. More broadly the ruling recognises that a thriving environment is not only a fundamental right but a responsibility we owe to our descendants. This ruling is a testament to how legislation can be used to protect the rights of future generations.

The right to a healthy environment

The ruling centred on a provision in the Montana state constitution that guarantees a right to a clean and healthful environment. The right is a recognition of the important role that the environment plays in human well-being; the ruling expands this right to future generations. Other US states include the right to a healthy environment in their state constitutions and over 150 countries have established the right to a healthy environment through constitutional or legislative means. The ruling may provide an important precedent and inspiration for other groups around the globe to protect future generations through legal action centred around the right to a healthy environment.

The ruling also highlights the importance of redoubling efforts to establish the right to a healthy environment at the international level. There is a growing international legal movement pushing for a legally binding treaty establishing the right to a healthy environment globally. The broad movement which includes various civil society organisations, indigenous groups, social movements and local communities recently won the UN Human Rights Prize.

Protecting the environmental rights of future generations in the UK

Unfortunately, the UK is falling behind the trend and failing to protect the rights of future generations. Despite voting in a non-binding resolution at the United Nations General Assembly to support the right to a healthy environment, no such right exists nationally. To protect the rights of future generations it is time for the UK government to make the right to a healthy environment national law.

While adopting the right to a healthy environment will require the action of politicians who currently seem reluctant to take climate action, citizens in the UK can currently refer to the Aarhus Convention. This convention requires that signatory countries provide access to information, public participation in environment-related decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. While civil society organisations and the public in the UK cannot yet sue the government over the right to a healthy environment, they can gather information and force the government to consult them on important decisions through the Aarhus Convention.

Moving forward

This landmark ruling calls for a shift in the way we approach environmental issues and reinforces the idea that our actions today ripple across time, affecting the opportunities and quality of life for generations yet unborn. The precedent set in Montana should be seen as a blueprint for actors around the world to act based on the right to a healthy environment to reduce the impact of fossil fuel development globally and protect the health of the environment for future generations. Here in the UK, we need to think about what we are leaving to future generations and what it means to not have the right to a healthy environment enshrined into law. Are you comfortable with the legacy we are leaving? If not, join IF as we work to make victories like that seen in Montana, available for young people and future generations here at home.

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