Youth suing states over climate change will have their day in court, and public opinion is on their side

The youth of Montana, Oregon, and Virginia are concerned about the climate futures of their states. And they’re frustrated that they don’t have a say in determining it.

But, through three youth action lawsuits launched in Montana, Oregon, and Virginia, the children of these states are trying to make their voices heard. 

In Virginia, 13 student climate activists filed a lawsuit this February against their state legislature. The lawsuit alleges that the fossil fuel projects green lighted by Virginia violate the constitutional and public trust rights of these plaintiffs, who are between the ages of 10 and 19. Virginia has a historic policy of leniently granting permits for fossil projects inside the state, leading to an excessive build-up of toxic air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Virginia state lawsuit was initiated based on the success of a youth lawsuit in Montana, which was recently endorsed by a judge and will go trial in February 2023. The group of minors who serve as plaintiffs in the Montana lawsuit, have lodged a similar set of accusations against their state. They write in the complaint that their livelihoods and futures depend on the rich natural resources of Montana, which the government depletes through legislation that favors fossil fuels and harms the environment. 

In Oregon, youth plaintiffs of the state filed a similar complaint, but made it national. This youth federal lawsuit claims that U.S. policies towards climate change hinder the rights to life, liberty, and property for future generations by damaging the world they will have available in the years to come. The plaintiffs were in settlement talks with the U.S. Department of Justice that ended in November of 2021 without reaching a solution. The defendants then filed a motion to amend the complaint, and they are waiting to receive a ruling on this.

These lawsuits seem to suggest that the youth are concerned about their futures in a way that the adults in their states are not. But data collected from the YPCCC’s Climate Opinion Maps prove otherwise. The views of adults in these states actually do align with those of the youths. 

The graphs shown here express that adults in Montana, Oregon, and Virginia are indeed concerned about global warming. In all three states, the data shows that 60% or more of the adult population have environmental concerns. And, counter to what these youth lawsuits seem to assert, adults in these states are even more worried about climate change affecting future generations than they are about it affecting themselves. Only 39% of adults in Montana think that global warming will harm them personally, while 66% think it will harm future generations. Similarly, in Oregon and Virginia, 47% and 48% of adults, respectively, think global warming will harm them personally, while 73% in both states are worried about global warming’s harm on the youth.

But, the actions of legislatures contradict the views of the people. These states are making pro-fossil fuel policies now that will disproportionately harm the generations of the future. 

This data illuminates a disconnect between the public opinion in these states and the actions taken by those in public office. And these lawsuits are a hopeful attempt to bridge that gap.