As our planet continues to warm, we are already seeing the effects of climate change in our everyday lives. Here in Utah, dangerously high temperatures, frequent drought, wildfires and air pollution interfere with daily life.
Due to the devastating impacts of climate change and Utah’s hazardous air quality, I became one of the seven plaintiffs in Natalie R. v. State of Utah, the youth-led constitutional case for climate justice and breathable air in Utah. Our case is currently on appeal at the Utah State Supreme Court, where five justices will determine whether we can move forward to trial. Being able to go to trial would allow us to present our evidence that the state of Utah is actively and knowingly contributing to our hazardous air quality and the climate crisis by promoting fossil fuel extraction and combustion.
The energy policy of our state requires our government to maximize permitting for fossil fuel extraction. The fact that our state laws don’t just turn a blind eye to fossil fuel extraction, but actively require the state to maximize it, is an absurdity. Such a provision must be declared unconstitutional if Utah hopes to mitigate the harms that result from climate change and dangerous air quality.
In Montana, a similar case, Held v. State of Montana, was recently decided after seven days of hearing evidence in the first youth-led constitutional climate trial in the country. The Montana Court ruled that, by contributing to climate change through issuing permits for fossil fuel extraction, the State of Montana was endangering the youth-plaintiffs’ health and safety and violating their constitutional rights.
As the first case of its kind to reach trial in the United States, the historic ruling in the case provides a profound precedent for youth-led climate lawsuits like mine. As such, I was overjoyed to hear that the courts had opened their doors to the youth’s claims and decided in favor of the youth and their constitutional rights. This ruling will require a reduction in carbon emissions by the state of Montana, which will in turn reduce the impacts of climate change in the long run, thus helping to protect the rights to life, health and safety promised to the plaintiffs in Montana.
The case against Montana and the case against Utah share commonalities. The key to our argument against the state of Utah is that their insistence upon the maximization of fossil fuel extraction poses a direct threat to the constitutional right to life promised to the plaintiffs. It is difficult to scientifically dispute the validity of this claim, which went unrefuted in the Montana youth’s trial. Our health and safety are already being harmed here due to intense heat waves, droughts, wildfires and pollutants which damage our health, limit outdoor recreation and raise costs for citizens like me and my fellow plaintiffs. After hearing from world-class experts, the judge in Montana found these same harms to be significant and especially damaging to children in the West. Furthermore, rising atmospheric pollution resulting from heavy fossil fuel combustion and increasingly severe wildfires is quite literally taking years off our lives. This is a clear violation of our rights as citizens, necessitating intervention from the judiciary, the body that was put in place to ensure that the rights promised in the constitution are upheld.
Held v. State of Montana used the same line of reasoning to argue that the fossil fuel-promoting actions taken by their state, while ignoring the climate crisis, posed a direct threat to the health and safety of youth. The fact that the two cases are so similar, and that the decision in Montana was in favor of the plaintiffs, provides a powerful justification for letting us present our evidence and seek a similar ruling here in Utah. This precedent demonstrates to the court system in Utah that actively contributing to the climate crisis is in fact a violation of the right to life of youth like me, and importantly solidifies that it is the role of the judiciary to ensure that right is protected. Furthermore, the ruling in Held proves that the courts can hear the scientific evidence of how the government contributes to the harms experienced because of climate change, and can apply the law to those facts.
This ruling means a lot to our case as it provides a framework for the ruling that we hope to see in our state. It means a lot to youth everywhere. If the courts in Montana recognize the constitutional right to life guaranteed to their citizens, then so too should Utah’s courts.
Dallin Rima is a plaintiff in Natalie R. v. State of Utah. He’s a Salt Lake native and is currently a student at Utah State University.