‘I Should Be Able to Go Outside’: Why a Utah Teen Is Suing Over Polluted Air

‘I Should Be Able to Go Outside’: Why a Utah Teen Is Suing Over Polluted Air
Natalie of the Natalie R. v. State of Utah lawsuit. (Photo: Natalie R.)

Fifteen-year-old Natalie R. is fed up with the poor air quality in her home state of Utah. But rather than simply complain, she and a group of other young people are taking on who they see as the enablers of this pollution: government officials who continue to green-light fossil fuel development.

Earlier this month, seven young activists filed a lawsuit against the state of Utah with the help of Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on climate justice. Natalie R. v. State of Utah alleges that the state and its elected officials unconstitutionally favour fossil fuel companies at the expense of residents’ rights to a healthy and safe life. Andrew Welle, staff attorney at Our Children’s Trust and lead counsel for the lawsuit, said the main issue is the public health problems young people are facing in the state.

“Utah in particular has a very serious problem with fossil fuel [based] air pollution… We have the data to show that it’s particularly dangerous [for young people] because of their developing bodies and unique vulnerabilities as young people,” Welle said. “Instead of protecting their young people and transitioning off of fossil fuels, the state has really doubled down.”

In August 2021, Utah temporarily had the worst air quality in the entire world, caused by the smoke from huge wildfires in the region. According to a 2020 report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 61% of Utah’s electricity is generated from coal and just 14% from renewable energy.

“These youth are, by and large, all under the age of 18. They can’t vote. They can’t go to the legislature and change their policies through the political process… They’re in a climate emergency. They need relief today,” Welle said.

I spoke with Natalie, a high school student in Salt Lake City, about the lawsuit and what drove her to activism. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Angely Mercado, Earther: How did you become involved in filing this lawsuit?

Natalie: I’m an activist with an organisation here in Utah called Fridays for Future Utah, and so I had been planning a couple of climate strikes. I hadn’t heard of Our Children’s Trust up until Earth Day last year, when I was presenting with Sierra Club. I wondered if there was a Utah movement, because I heard of lawsuits occurring in [other] states. Then we started an interview process to figure out how we would pursue this lawsuit, and since then six other people have joined. Since my complaint is the first listed, it just happens to be my name, but we’re all equally part of it.

Gizmodo: Why take legal action, as opposed to organising another climate strike or finding other ways to push Utah’s elected officials?

Natalie: It’s different from just doing a regular strike, because we can take legal action in this case. And if the court decides that our constitutional rights are being violated, then we can get legal change. We live in a society where most change is made through the government. I would encourage people to look at how their legal rights and liberties are violated through their government’s actions and how they’re being impacted by climate change. When people can see what their governments are doing that is violating their rights as citizens — that’s pretty powerful to help them take action.

Gizmodo: You feel that the state has not protected your constitutional rights. Can you explain that more?

Natalie: Utah has many laws in place that support the fossil fuel industry and allow for permitting for exploration, extraction, and exportation of fossil fuels and also for them to be combusted in the state, which is causing significant problems with our air quality.

Personally, I’m a very active person and I like to go outside, so [it’s about our rights] to be able to be outside and lead a physically active lifestyle and a healthy lifestyle, as well as mental health when being outdoors. Sometimes I’m not able to go outside, because the air quality is deemed toxic and harmful. That’s a violation of my rights, because I should be able to go outside. This happens quite a bit, especially over the past two years. We’ve had very bad air quality going into Salt Lake. And then we’ve also experienced heat warnings.

Gizmodo: How does it feel to sue your state government?

Natalie: It does feel a little weird, but with the support of everybody, with all the plaintiffs and with [attorneys] Andrew and Amira, it doesn’t feel like that daunting of a task. There’s a bunch of youth, ages nine to 18, suing their government, and that’s not something you hear about every day.

Gizmodo: How have people you know reacted to the news?

Natalie: There’s not too many reactions at the moment, but I think if we get a court day, and once we get more publicity on this, hopefully, there’ll be more support from students my age… that’s what I’ve hoped for.

Gizmodo: What do you most want the public to understand about this lawsuit?

Natalie: It’s not that the state isn’t doing enough to combat climate change. It’s that they’re actively contributing to it through the laws that they’ve enacted. And so while they are, in a sense, not doing enough, they are also actively contributing. A win in this case would reduce emissions, help improve the air quality, and in general provide a better climate.