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Youth climate trial opens in Montana


For years, groups of young people have been suing various governments in the U.S. for failing to act on climate change. Only one of those lawsuits has made it to trial so far. It's in Montana, and the judge there has been hearing it all week. Montana Public Radio's Ellis Juhlin reports.

ELLIS JUHLIN, BYLINE: Sixteen youth plaintiffs are suing state leaders, saying they've ignored scientific evidence and continue to promote fossil fuels, worsening climate change. They say that violates their right to a clean and healthful environment, which Montana's constitution guarantees. The state has tried multiple times to avoid going to trial, including two requests for the state Supreme Court to override prior rulings. Eighteen-year-old Lander Busse has been waiting for three years for his day in court.

LANDER BUSSE: 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 and has been avidly trying to deny us that opportunity throughout this whole process.

JUHLIN: Lander and his family rely on hunting and fishing to stock their freezers for the winter. For him, this case is about saving what he loves about Montana. When Lander and the other plaintiffs finally entered a Lewis and Clark County courtroom this past week, supporters lined the sidewalk outside to cheer them on.


JUHLIN: Twelve of the plaintiffs took the stand, sharing their experiences living in Montana's changing climate.


CLAIRE VLASES: It's smoky. The world is burning.

JUHLIN: Twenty-year-old Claire Vlases says summer wildfire smoke often blocks out the mountains surrounding the valley where she lives. Thick smoke and burnt orange skies, like the East Coast recently experienced, have been a regular occurrence in Montana for years now. Vlases says it sometimes feels like her lungs are full of fire.


VLASES: And that sounds like a dystopian horror film, but it's not a movie. It's real life. I mean, that's what us kids have to deal with.

JUHLIN: Vlases and her co-plaintiffs are asking the state to set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions. Montana is America's fifth-largest coal producer. The plaintiffs say both the legislature and executive branch continue to prioritize fossil fuels. They called 10 expert witnesses, including University of Montana researcher Steven Running. He contributed to a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which won a Nobel Prize in 2007.


STEVEN RUNNING: No. 1, climate change is real. The Earth is warming up - and that the driver for this is burning fossil fuels.

JUHLIN: Attorneys representing the state were generally deferential to the youth plaintiffs. Their questions for the expert witnesses largely sought to cast doubt on Montana's ability to affect climate change. Here's Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell.


MICHAEL RUSSELL: Montana's emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference. And climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana's role to that of a spectator.

JUHLIN: Attorneys for the state get the chance to present their defense next week. On Friday, they announced they would not call one of their expert witnesses, a climatologist who disagrees with the scientific consensus on climate change. For NPR News, I'm Ellis Juhlin in Helena.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ellis Juhlin

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