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In a first, a youth climate lawsuit is being heard in a court in Montana

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today, the first youth climate lawsuit to ever make it all the way to trial in the U.S. is being heard by a judge in Montana. Sixteen young people say state leaders are not addressing climate change and that violates the state constitution. Montana Public Radio's Ellis Juhlin has more.

ELLIS JUHLIN, BYLINE: Badge Busse is a 15-year-old high school student who lives near Glacier National Park. He and his older brother have grown up hunting and fishing in the mountains surrounding their home.

BADGE BUSSE: It's hard to watch, like, the things that I love, like, get depleted slowly. Like, fishing with my dad is, like, my main way to hang out with him and my brother.

JUHLIN: Montana's constitution, written in 1972, explicitly says citizens have the right to a clean and healthful environment. That's one reason this case has made it all the way to trial. Young people nationwide have filed dozens of lawsuits about climate change since 2015, but none have actually been heard in court until now. The Busse brothers and their 14 co-plaintiffs say Montana's leaders need to establish limits on carbon emissions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY PARRY: They want us to figure out the exact effect that that's going to have on the global climate.

JUHLIN: Republican Gary Parry represents a coal mining town in the state legislature. Controls on carbon emissions are not popular among the politically powerful here. Parry spoke out against the state even measuring carbon emissions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARRY: And it's nearly impossible. And it's there specifically to be an obstructionist measure for industry in this state.

JUHLIN: Republicans hold every statewide office but one in Montana, including the attorney general. He's defending the state in this case. The AG is not talking to the media about the kids' lawsuit. But in an emailed statement, he called it a show trial on laws that do not exist and a waste of taxpayer resources. This year, state lawmakers removed climate language in Montana's Environmental Policy Act, but the judge says the lawsuit can continue. The attorney general and others say the kids are being coached by the legal team or their parents into suing. Plaintiff Badge Busse says this is their chance to be heard.

B BUSSE: I think about the - like, that our parents or the lawyers are coercing us into doing this. I think I don't really know what else to say besides the fact that this is our land as much as it is any other people's. And we just want to protect it, protect it for our kids and for ourselves.

JUHLIN: Getting their day in court has been no easy feat. Since the youth plaintiffs filed the case in 2020, the attorney general has asked the state Supreme Court to intervene twice, unsuccessfully. Last summer, the attorney general asked for more time to prepare, and a judge gave him six months. After everything that's happened these past two years, Badge's brother, Lander Busse, says the thought of finally taking the stand is surreal.

LANDER BUSSE: It's kind of like a melancholy feeling for me going into it. We've had to fight so hard against an administration, a whole state, that doesn't want us to be able to carry out our constitutional rights.

JUHLIN: The outcome of this landmark case could impact other children's climate litigation going forward in state and federal courts. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Oregon said she'll hear an amended lawsuit brought by a group of 21 kids from around the country. Initially filed in 2015, it was thrown out by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said their complaints should be addressed by the White House or Congress. In Montana, Lander Busse says their case being taken up today is a chance to save what they love about their home.

L BUSSE: We're doing this first and foremost for the people of Montana who cherish and share this land and use it the same ways that we do and respect it the same way we do.

JUHLIN: The trial starts today in Helena and is scheduled to last two weeks.

For NPR News, I'm Ellis Juhlin in Helena.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLORIES' "CROWNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ellis Juhlin
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