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Young people are suing their own state governments en masse — here's why

The lawsuits are part of a growing global trend.

Outside courthouse, climate trials

Photo Credit: iStock

The U.S. is entering a new phase of environmental legal history, with cities, states, and ordinary citizens taking action against governments and oil companies for driving the overheating of our planet.

What are climate trials? 

The first U.S. climate trial started on June 12 and is being led by 16 young people in Montana, The Washington Post reported. The group is suing the state, saying that its actions to authorize, permit, and encourage dirty fuel extraction have harmed young Montanans. 

These young people also alleged that the state's actions violated rights granted to them by its constitution, including the right to "a clean and healthy environment," per the Montana constitution.

A similar climate trial will likely begin soon in Hawaii, where 14 young people have charged that the state's transportation system violates residents' rights to a clean and healthful environment. 

The plaintiffs in Hawaii have argued that the state is responsible for "high and untenable levels" of planet-heating gases because it funds projects that escalate the use of dirty energy instead of those that reduce pollution.

This all comes on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the door for cities and states to proceed with litigation against oil companies.

The U.S. lawsuits are part of a growing global trend. Young people in Austria, Peru, Germany, and Portugal have also filed lawsuits to force their governments to act on our overheating planet.

Why are climate trials important?

Dirty energy sources are the largest contributor to our warming planet, accounting for more than 75% of planet-warming pollution. 

The warming of the Earth threatens human health in various ways, robbing us of clean air, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter, according to the World Health Organization (WHO)

WHO estimates we could see about 250,000 additional deaths annually from 2030-2050, thanks to the planet's overheating. According to the organization, its direct health costs will range from $2-4 billion annually by 2030.

Of course, a warming world also puts species across the globe at risk. According to the U.S. National Park Service, rising temperatures will make it harder for some animals to find food. Plus, flooding or fires from extreme weather events can destroy habitats.

How will climate trials help protect the planet?

If successful, the Montana climate lawsuit — and others like it — could help ensure a healthier living standard for future generations. One of the plaintiffs, 14-year-old Mica Kantor, told NBC News, "[I]t's my future that I want to protect and all the kids' future in Montana."

The lawsuit could also set a legal precedent making government support of dirty energy industries unconstitutional. Mat dos Santos, general counsel at Our Children's Trust and one of the attorneys in the suit, predicted such a win also could lead to a "cascade of legal victories around the country."

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