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US court, United Nations side with youth on climate fight

A United Nations body in late August updated a key treaty designed to protect children's rights to strengthen their hand in fighting climate change as they emerge at the forefront of the battle to save the planet.


From wildfires in Portugal to fossil fuel projects in the U.S. state of Montana, young plaintiffs have been taking the lead in many lawsuits seeking more government action on climate change.


In the document, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child calls environmental degradation, including the climate crisis, "a form of structural violence against children."


It says that states should provide access to justice for children by "removing barriers for children to initiate proceedings themselves."


"This could definitely strengthen their hand because now there's a fully articulated set of guidance that pulls everything together in one place," said Ann Skelton, chair of the committee and a South African lawyer, adding that she hoped businesses and policymakers would draw on the document.


Some 16,000 children across more than 100 countries were consulted during a broader dialogue during the two-year drafting period for the guidelines. Tânia dos Santos Maia, a 14year-old from Brazil, said she expected the U.N. document to make children and adolescents more aware of their rights.


The guidance was broadly welcomed; however, some say it needs to go further. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg asked the committee "to be more vigorous and somewhat bolder" during consultations, U.N. committee member Philip Jaffé told Reuters. Thunberg was not immediately available for comment via a spokesperson.


Thunberg’s delegation was not alone in calling for more ambition. “I think this was such a missed opportunity – it’s an exercise in incrementalism instead of taking a quantum leap forward,” said Kelly Matheson, deputy director of Global Climate Litigation at Our Children’s Trust, which represented youths in a case where a state judge found against the U.S. state of Montana this month.


In early August, a U.S. state judge said Montana is violating young people's rights with policies prohibiting the state from considering climate change effects when it reviews coal mining, natural gas extraction, and other fossil fuel projects.


The decision by Judge Kathy Seeley in Helena marked a significant victory in the first youthled climate case to reach trial in the U.S. and could influence similar cases nationwide.


In her ruling, Seeley said Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions have been proven to be "a substantial factor" in causing climate impacts to Montana's environment, harming the young plaintiffs.


Youth plaintiffs in Held v. State of Montana gathered in June at Pioneer Park in Helena Credit: Janie Osborne

The 16 plaintiffs sued Montana in 2020, when they were ages 2 to 18, claiming the state's permitting of projects like coal and natural gas production exacerbated the climate crisis despite a 1972 amendment to the Montana constitution requiring the state to protect and improve the environment.


Seeley said the plaintiffs have a “fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment." She said policies prohibiting state agencies from considering climate and emissions impacts when approving fossil fuel projects are unconstitutional.


In a June trial, the youths argued that Montana is responsible for an outsized share of global emissions despite its sparse population. The state is a significant producer of coal, oil, and gas shipped elsewhere and is also the home of pipelines and other infrastructure needed to ship those fuels. Several of the young plaintiffs took the stand during the trial and detailed how climate change affected their lives.


Lead plaintiff Rikki Held, 22, testified that droughts have left "skinny cows and dead cattle" on her family's ranch in eastern Montana, and wildfires have made ash fall from the sky.


Against the Montana US ruling, the state argued that courts should not set climate policy and the plaintiffs hadn't proved that the global crisis could be attributed to Montana's relatively small emissions, while a spokesperson for the Montana attorney general's office called the ruling "absurd," and Seeley an "ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward."


Julia Olson, an attorney for Our Children's Trust, represented the young people, called the decision a "huge win for Montana," and said similar decisions were likely to follow in different states.


Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, said Seeley's findings, including that climate change, is a serious health and environmental threat, could "become an inspiration" for lawsuits in states with similar constitutional provisions and make it more difficult for defendants to wave away climate concerns. It is "the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court," he said.


Lawyers representing six young people from Portugal, taking 32 countries before the European Court of Human Rights for what they see as government inaction over climate change, said they think the ruling will reinforce their case.


The case was one of several youth-led climate cases in the U.S. A case by young people in Hawaii against the state's Department of Transportation is scheduled to go to trial next year, making it the second in the country to do so.


A case against the U.S. government was revived in June after being dismissed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020. All U.N. countries, barring the United States, have ratified the 1989 Child Rights Convention, which addresses environmental matters but needs updating, given the pace of climate change.


The committee's guidance on the convention is often cited by lawyers and sometimes by courts in rulings.


Skelton said the U.N. had to balance its actions as some states already said it went too far. She said the U.N. body's guidance limits itself to the 2015 Paris warming target of 1.5 degrees Celsius -- a rise she says is already dangerous for children.


(Callan Williamson/Reuters)

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