The children just want to breathe

What Montana’s landmark climate case could mean for Idaho

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

As fires rage in Idaho’s forests, the smoke hangs so thick sometimes in Sandpoint that its famous views take on a muted, ghostly pallor. Summer vacation, every kid’s dream, has been overshadowed year after year by smoke thick enough to blot out the sun.

When I was in elementary school, we never had to tape our windows shut to keep the air in our house breathable. That all started in high school when the particles of ash falling from hazy August skies brought to mind winter more than the dog days of summer. Now there are children in first grade who have never known anything different.

Kids don’t get to be kids anymore. Now, they’re forced to be protestors and environmental activists, desperately fighting for the right to breathe. The kids have stopped waiting for adults to save them; our government’s inaction has proven what little value it places on their lives.

Montana’s youth — some only 5 years of age — recently won the groundbreaking climate case Held v. Montana, argued before the state’s First Judicial District Court. Young people in other states have tried similar lawsuits, though this is the first to rule in favor of environmental stewardship. 

A generative AI rendering resulting from the prompt, “smoky skies climate change.”

The plaintiffs testified that extreme weather, warming water temperatures and wildfire smoke were threatening their and their families’ livelihoods and mental health.

Children, who should have been playing in the summer sun, had to plead for their futures and then wait for a ruling as the world quite literally burned down around them.

The ironically named Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general, released a statement calling the case a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt.” Despite opposing opinions, the court found that neglecting the children’s mental and physical health would be illegal because Article IX Part IX of Montana’s constitution dictates, “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” 

The ruling will force Montana’s government to take climate change into consideration when making decisions about fossil fuel projects.

It is a monumental victory for Montana’s future generations, but why should it matter in Idaho? The nation isn’t just choking on smoke; a pervasive mentality has spread throughout the country, poisoning people with pseudoscience and antiquated ideologies. Climate change is real. Held v. Montana simply restated what should already be accepted: to deny the ecological damage we’re perpetrating against our planet is to deny our children and grandchildren their futures.

Now that there is precedent for cases seeking to preserve our nation’s natural resources, Idaho has the opportunity to protect our children and way of life. Especially in North Idaho, our communities are inextricably tied to the land. You don’t live in a rural setting for the fast internet or the job opportunities — frankly, we have neither — yet the reason we thrive is because of our natural resources.

While it’s true that the Idaho Constitution does not have the same environmental safeguards as Montana’s, Article I Section XXIII does state that, “The rights to hunt, fish and trap … shall forever be preserved for the people and managed through the laws, rules and proclamations that preserve the future of hunting, fishing and trapping.”

It’s difficult to hunt or trap when the forest is on fire, and fishing in a dead lake won’t feed anyone. There are ways for the case to be argued, should Idahoans take up the cause.

Whether hiking, biking, hunting, fishing or skiing, life is lived outside. The climate is changing rapidly due to human carelessness, and the days when Idahoans could walk out their front doors and into a free and healthy wilderness are coming to an end. There is no Bonner County without our lakes, rivers, mountains or forests. 

Idaho kids shouldn’t have to sacrifice their childhood for the right to grow up in a safe, healthy environment. It is the duty of the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and next-door neighbors to keep the world safe for the next generation, and in the process, make it better for ourselves. Next time we’re choked by the fires burning around us, step outside and feel the smoke dry your throat; there are consequences to inaction, but there’s no downside to protecting our shared home.

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