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The Kids Who Sued Montana Over Climate Change and Won Say It’s Just the Start

7 minute read

In 2020, 16 plaintiffs, ages 5 to 22, took the state of Montana to court for, they said, violating their right to a clean environment, which is enshrined in the state’s constitution. This year, after a protracted court fight, they won: on Aug. 14, in a decision that the state attorney general has appealed, a judge ruled that Montana must consider the effects of climate change when deciding whether to begin or renew fossil-fuel projects. Held v. State of Montana is a first of-its-kind case, but—given a rising generation of young activists who know the power of speaking their minds—it is unlikely to be the last.

Who better to interview young climate activists about that victory than a young journalist? Ninis Twumasi, a 13-year-old Kid Reporter for TIME for Kids, is based in New York City. He spoke with two of the plaintiffs: Sariel Sandoval, now 20 and a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and Claire Vlases, also 20, who is studying at Claremont McKenna College and finishing up a semester abroad in New Zealand. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. —Allison Singer, TIME for Kids

TIME: Why did you decide to participate in this trial?

Vlases: I care a lot about the land and my home state and want to do everything I can to protect it. I was 16 or 17 when I joined the lawsuit. I couldn’t vote yet. I know there are three branches of government for a reason. I had tried helping with climate legislation, but it never was very successful, so working through the courts just made sense to me.

Sandoval: I felt like it was a good opportunity to be a voice for my people and my tribe. I’m an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. I’m also Navajo. We are located on the Flathead Reservation, which is in Western Montana. I also thought it was a good opportunity to hold the state of Montana accountable for its actions and what it’s doing to not just my people, but everyone in Montana. It’s our entire future, you know?

Sariel Sandoval, 20, speaks from the witness stand proceedings in a climate change lawsuit inside the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse
Sariel Sandoval, 20, speaks from the witness stand proceedings in a climate change lawsuit inside the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena on the third day of their trial. Sixteen young people argue that the state is robbing their future by embracing policies that contribute to climate change during the first of its kind constitutional lawsuit in the United States. Robin Loznak—Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust

How long have you been working on environmental causes?

Vlases: I grew up on a small farm in Montana, helping grow vegetables, raising livestock, stuff like that. So I’ve cared a lot about the land since I was little. But I really got into environmental work in middle school. In seventh grade, I raised about $120,000 for solar panels on my school. From there, a lot of doors opened for me in the environmental community.

Sandoval: I’ve always been passionate and outspoken, but I hadn’t done any formal environmental work. Then there’s this case. I was asked to join in January 2020, so we’re going on four years.

Were you worried people wouldn’t take you seriously because of your age?

Sandoval: There were some of those kinds of doubts. But with all the other plaintiffs and our stories, it felt like they couldn’t really not listen to us. I feel like we demanded their attention.

Vlases: I agree with Sariel. We did demand their attention. Just because we’re younger doesn’t mean our rights are any less valuable than someone else’s—I think, perhaps, [they are] even more important, since we bring in a fresh perspective.

What was going through your mind during the trial?

Vlases: It was difficult to listen to all of the experts talking about how climate change is going to impact my home state. Seeing the data and evidence presented in real time was eye-opening. And then to hear the stories of my fellow plaintiffs alongside it ... My friends are going through a lot of challenges because of climate change. It was inspiring to hear them talk about what’s happened and how they’re taking action, but it was sad that it even happened, and is still happening.

Sandoval: Hearing my peers talk about their experience, you feel their emotion. The state of Montana hadn’t really done anything in terms of protecting our rights, and this is the consequence.

Claire Vlases testifying in court during trial on June 15th.
Claire Vlases testifying in court during trial on June 15th.Robin Loznak—Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust

Which stories stuck out to you?

Sandoval: One that stood out to me was Olivia [Vesovich]’s. She brought her art, a mermaid tail stuffed with plastic bags. It was a very impactful piece.

Vlases: Rikki [Held] talking about her land and her cattle being affected by climate change. Stories from Lander and Badge [Busse] about their ability to hunt and fish, and do regular Montana activities. Yours, Sariel. Your story definitely got me.

What about it got you?

Vlases: She’s a powerful speaker. She talked about how climate change impacts her and her Indigenous community. It’s not something I’ve experienced, so it means even more. She told a story about how her tribe has a big ceremony when the first snow falls. It was tied with expert testimony showing that snow might not fall in that area in the coming years. If snow doesn’t fall, they can’t have their ceremony. It takes away an entire aspect of their culture.

During the case, was there ever a time when you felt hopeless?

Sandoval: I don’t think I ever felt hopeless. I had enough support from the team and from the other plaintiffs, and also within my own community.

Vlases: It was scary to be in the courtroom and a little nerve-racking to hear the other side present arguments, but I just kept believing that what I said, and what the other plaintiffs had to say, was the truth. The truth wins, I guess, when it comes to our justice system. At least that’s how it’s supposed to be.

How did you feel when you found out that you’d won?

Sandoval: I felt super happy. I don’t know how to put it in any other words. It was a great day, that day.

Vlases: The decision validated the whole experience. It felt like the court said, We hear you, and we’re going to do something about it. 

The attorney general’s office appealed the result. What are your thoughts?

Sandoval: It was kind of expected.

Vlases: I agree. It wasn’t that surprising. I think that’s just the way the legal system works. It’s kind of a bummer that they’re continuing to use taxpayer dollars to fight a losing battle about the rights of children, but such is life. Hopefully the [Montana] Supreme Court will further validate and make even stronger the decision we have already.

What impact do you hope this trial will have on the next generation?

Sandoval: This is only the first step, right? It’s going to take a lot more action to really address climate change in the way it needs to be addressed. But it is a great first step.

Vlases: As a young person who cares about the land and the environment, it can often feel disheartening when people talk about climate change. It feels like a big impending doom, and it’s hard to feel like the power to make a difference is in our hands. But I hope that this decision and this case proves otherwise. Hopefully it’s a guide or an inspiration for younger generations to take action, just like we did.

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