Instead of slacking off during his final semester of high school as many teenagers do, 17-year-old Dallin Rima is suing Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.
Rima is one of seven Utah children, ages 9 to 18, who on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court over fossil fuel-friendly policies they say are fueling climate change and poor air quality, creating an environment that violates their state constitutional rights to life, health and safety.
“When you look at the world and find something you're passionate about, things like age become less and less of a barrier,” Rima told the Deseret News. “I’ve always wanted to make a difference on this issue, because it’s the most important thing to me. This was my chance.”
Natalie R. v. State of Utah names a number of government agencies and officials in addition to Cox, including the governor’s energy adviser Thom Carter and the director of Utah’s Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, John Baza.
Both the Utah Attorney General’s office and a spokesperson for Cox declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The 94-page complaint singles out five policies dating back to 1979 that the group says “directs the maximization, promotion, and systematic authorization” of Utah’s oil, gas and coal industries.
The policies include the Utah Coal Mining and Reclamation Act and more recently, the Utah Energy Act. Passed in 2006, the Utah Energy Act expanded the state’s promotion of fossil fuels to include oil shale and oil sands, while also endorsing renewable energy resources like geothermal, solar and wind.
These policies violate the youth plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, the group says, and therefore require judicial intervention. The suit asks the courts to require the state to “stop carrying out and implementing unconstitutional laws that worsen the climate crisis and violate the rights of Utah youth.”
“You’re seeing these stark harms already playing out currently in Utah in the form of dangerous air quality, increasing wildfire smoke, and heat waves. And the data show that Utah’s dangerous air quality is taking years off the lives of its citizens and, in particular, its children who are uniquely impacted and particularly vulnerable,” said Andrew Welle, senior staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm behind the suit.
“The state of Utah has long known of those dangers. And instead of addressing the climate crisis and Utah’s air quality crisis, it’s doubled down and made it its official policy, putting laws on the books that say ‘we’re going to maximize fossil fuel production in Utah,’” he said.
For Rima, it’s the most concrete step in what has been a lifetime of concern over environmental issues. In grade school, he remembers wishing he was old enough to pack up and move to Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“When I looked up ‘where in the U.S. had the best air quality,’ No. 1 was always Colorado Springs,” he said. “I was always like ‘I need to get away from Utah’s horrible air.’”
Then in his seventh grade debate class, Rima was assigned climate change as a debate topic. “It was just eye-opening, learning about it for the first time,” he said.
Rima would later pen a letter to Utah Sen. Mitt Romney after he was elected, asking him to do more to combat climate change while scaling back the state’s reliance on coal. He got a personalized response — but Rima says it wasn’t the answer he was hoping for, adding it to a long list of “false promises by politicians at the state and federal level.”
“It’s frustrating because I could never vote, I could never run for office. My instruments to make change were never that great,” said Rima, who reached out to Our Children’s Trust over to summer to get involved in the suit. “You feel powerless.”
Based out of Oregon, Our Children’s Trust has spearheaded several similar suits. In 2015 it launched Juliana v. United States, where 21 youth plaintiffs argued that the federal government’s actions contributed to climate change, violating “the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”
Five months of settlement negotiations between the plaintiffs and the U.S. Department of Justice ended without resolution in November. The plaintiffs are now awaiting a ruling on their Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint and the Motion to Intervene filed by 18 states.
Our Children’s Trust is also behind a similar lawsuit, Held v. State of Montana, which will go to trial in February 2023.
The nonprofit is part of a growing trend of youth led movements urging governments to act on climate change. In 2015, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg became a household name after spending her afternoons outside of the Swedish Parliament building decrying the government’s inaction on climate change.
It’s Thunberg, Rima says, who inspired him to pursue advocacy at such a young age. Thunberg later organized a school climate strike and went on to speak at the United Nations in 2018.
In April 2021, the German Supreme Court ruled that the country’s climate law, drafted by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, was partially unconstitutional after nine youth climate activists argued it did not go far enough to reduce carbon emissions. Much like the lawsuit filed in Utah on Tuesday, the German youth activists claimed the law risked the health and freedom of future generations.
Clarification: A previous version incorrectly stated that the plaintiffs applied to get involved in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs did not apply, they instead reached out to Our Children’s Trust to inquire about becoming a part of the lawsuit.