Grace Gibson Snyder: Creating change through youth activism, active participation
On a sunny morning in quiet Missoula, The Guardian met Grace Gibson Snyder at Brennan’s Wave, Clark Fork River, a popular spot frequented often and loved by residents, young and old, in the town.
Snyder is one of the 16 young people who have, with the support of an environmental non-profit, sued the state of Montana in a lawsuit Held v. State of Montana. The case sought to protect the young people’s right to a healthy environment, life, dignity, and freedom. As at the time The Guardian met Grace in Missoula, the case hadn’t received judgment but a few days later, judgment was granted.
The plaintiffs had won the case. They successfully sued the government and the court gave judgment in their favour, setting what Grace describes as an unbelievable precedence for similar cases that have been in the court system and will still go to the court system in future.
Looking at Grace, she looks like any young woman in Missoula, but immediately she starts speaking, her zeal and passion can be seen and felt; not just for the town, but also for the cause she strongly believes in – climate change, protecting the environment and the promotion of renewable energy across the state and hopefully, the country.
Taking The Guardian down the river’s path, a path she said she has walked thousands of times, Grace said the city has changed so much in the last decade. And not necessarily for good.
“Missoula is a gorgeous place to grow up and I spent a lot of my childhood hiking, biking, camping and it was a beautiful experience. Because of this, I think I developed a deep love and connection to the outdoors, and I think I understand better how much we rely on nature to feed and protect us.As I grew up, I started to see how climate change is affecting my home. With hotter summers and drier forests, the wildfires are getting worse and now, we are inhaling more smoke here.”
She said this is important to her because she played football when she was younger and ran around a lot, practicing, and the smoke is painful to breathe in, hurts and is unhealthy. She said this is a major way climate change affects Montana. “Another way we are affected is when you look at the famous Glacier National Park. The glaciers there are melting very fast because of climate change. Some of them are melting naturally but most are due to climate change.”
Grace says seeing all this makes her more determined to protect her home and public spaces that serve everyone. She said she first started with local projects like getting rid of plastics in Missoula and was opportune to join the lawsuit after hearing about it. “I mailed the lawyers in charge and simply asked if I could join the case and they said yes. Three years later, it went to trial and now we have a judgment.”Aged 19 now, she was 16 when she joined the case. She said she was just 14 years when she started looking at environmental projects in Missoula.
Grace revealed this was the first constitutional climate case to go to trial in the U.S and she is glad she was a part of it. Based on Montana’s constitution, she said a part in it says that every older citizen of Montana has a right to a clean and healthy environment. “Traditionally, Montana protects the outdoors but the government in the last two decades, has strayed away from this. We also have a large fossil fuel industry here, which the economy thrived on in the past.” She added that the government has failed to consider the environmental impact of extracting and using fossil fuels and this is the premise upon which the case was based.
“We’re saying that because the government continues to permit fossil fuel extraction, it contributes to climate change which harms the people, especially young people like myself and other plaintiffs, which in turn violates our right to a clean and healthy environment.”
She said when they set out with the lawsuit, they wanted to judge to declare the state actions’ unconstitutional.“We want the courts to force the government to change its actions and shift away the states’ economy from fossil fuels towards cleaner energy and renewables, which she said is far better for our health.”
On if they received support from residents, she said people in Missoula were very supportive but not so much, the rest of Montana. “Everyone I spoke to here were supportive but the rest of the state have divided opinions. People appreciate that we are trying to protectthe environment, they do love this place, but on the other hand, climate change has become politicised and some people see it as a ‘liberal agenda’. They claim that some out-of-state agents are trying to impose their beliefs on them though us.”
She added that the biggest resistance came from the government. “Spokespeople from the government, our governor and the Attorney General and a lot of the people on the defense side, said many things about us. I understand even though I am disappointed. The government knows fossil fuel is dangerous and we are simply asking them to shift to renewable energy which is cleaner, safer, and better for the economy.”
She said it was a unique experience for her and others, to place all the science, story, history, and their lived experiences and play it out at trial for everyone to see. “It became a compelling argument in our favour.”
Grace said she was represented by the non-profit law firm, Our Children’s Trust, who are funded by private donations and foundations.
When asked if the fight was an existential crisis between cheaper fossil fuels which the government uses to power the economy and renewable energy which is more expensive, she said it is something that has occurred to them but people’s wellbeing is more important at the end of the day. “Also, we had testimonies from experts showing how the transition would work economically. Essentially, as we transition to renewables, our energy use will shrink drastically to less than half of what we use now. We will need to produce less renewable energy overall and it gives the government a chance to create a whole new economy in the renewable energy area.”
She said this presents an opportunity for the state to become a leader in renewable energy and show it has the capability and desire to make the transition. “A lot of people think we are anti-government and anti-establishment and anti-institution because we dared to say the government is not working for us and this is not true. The only reason we could do this is because our government has the opportunity to use the legal system and we are using the same checks and balances that are built into the constitution which guides how our government works to say, ‘this part of the government is doing something we don’t like, so we’re going to use this part of the government to have an intense conversation about it.’
She said she knows she is lucky to live in a place where she hasn’t faced threats to her life. “Some people have protested againstus but none has been violent. I didn’t expect to be here. I was 16, saw an issue and didn’t know how I could work on it but I did something and eventually, did more.”
She advised young people to start from where they are presently and work from there, lending their voices, time and talent to causes they care about.
“There are some cases like ours across the country but ours was the first to go to trial. There are some cases that have been in the courts for almost a decade without judgment yet. Our case was very fast, to get a judgment in three years is incredible. I am working on an existential problem and it could take another year to see any concrete outcome from this case,” she said.
She said going to court isn’t the only way to make impact in the climate change space but with their victory, a great precedence has been set for the other lawsuits and their chances of victory as well.
Describing the case as what was right for Montana in the past and what is right for the state going forward, she said the state’s history was in mining and fossil fuels but its future lies in renewable energy and preserving not just the state’s environment but also, the climate as a whole.
Grace Snyder has shown and is showing other young people not just around her, but all over the world, that young people can be passionate about a cause, have a voice and can use that voice and passion for good, to create change and actively fight for what they believe in. “Just keep doing what you believe in. Find others who you align with and walk with them but always try to make an impact in your own way,” she said.
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