Trails Inspired This Teenager to Take Historic Action on Climate Change

This article originally appeared on Trail Runner

When Mica Kantor started his eighth-grade cross-country season last fall, he was excited to train with his team on the trails around Missoula, Montana.

But he didn't get to run outside for an entire week that September. Instead, the team did loops around the school hallways while thick wildfire smoke obliterated the air quality outside. They couldn't do any fast workouts because the floor was slippery and the turns were sharp and awkward. Kantor was disappointed, but not surprised.

"Cross-country season is also smoke season in Montana," he says.

This wasn't the first time Kantor's running, and other outdoor pursuits, were affected by climate change. The 15-year-old has dealt with many scrapped running plans, canceled backpacking treks, and indoor recesses throughout his childhood. In 2017, he spent more than a month cooped up inside while wildfires scorched over a million acres across Montana.

And that's why the Montana teenager decided to take climate action.

Joining a Historic Fight

Kantor joined a group of 16 youth plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana in 2020, alleging that the government violated their right to a clean and healthful environment through the development and production of fossil fuels. Held v Montana is one of five youth-led climate suits across the country, where young people are suing state governments for promoting fossil fuel energy policies and worsening the climate crisis. More cases are in development both in the U.S. and around the world.

"For decades, the government has promoted a dangerous fossil fuel energy system by permitting oil and gas projects," says Mary Wood, an environmental law professor at the University of Oregon. "The youth plaintiffs are asking the courts to step in and protect the future for their generation."

<span class="article__caption">Youth plaintiffs pose for a group photo as they arrive for the nation’s first youth climate change trial at Montana’s First Judicial District Court on June 12, 2023 in Helena, Montana. Kantor pictured third from the right. </span> (Photo: William Campbell/Getty Images)
Youth plaintiffs pose for a group photo as they arrive for the nation’s first youth climate change trial at Montana’s First Judicial District Court on June 12, 2023 in Helena, Montana. Kantor pictured third from the right. (Photo: William Campbell/Getty Images)

The lawsuit argued that certain state laws are contributing to climate change, including a statute that prevents Montana agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and climate impacts when permitting energy projects.

"We didn't cause this issue, but the younger generations will have to deal with the catastrophic results," Kantor says.

He and his fellow plaintiffs made history this past August when a district court ruled in their favor and declared that the state government had, in fact, violated their right to a safe climate and caused harm to their generation through fossil fuel activity. In her 102-page decision, Helena District Court Judge Kathy Seeley wrote that "every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs' injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries."



Wood explains that this ruling will force Montana state agencies and the legislature to consider environmental impacts when permitting energy projects.

"Every energy project now has to be weighed against these constitutional rights," Wood explains. "The agencies can’t just greenlight fossil fuel energy projects like they did in the past."

Running with Purpose

During the trial in Helena, the judge listened to the young plaintiffs, whose ages ranged from 5 to 22, testify about the ways they've been affected by the climate crisis. When it was Kantor's turn to take the stand, he talked about running, and how climate change has made it difficult to get outdoors and do this activity that he loves most.

Kantor started running when he was eight years old. He eased into the sport, joining fun runs with his dad, who's also a runner. But he's recently taken training and racing more seriously. Kantor joined his middle school cross-country team and, now, his high school's team. He races the Missoula Half Marathon every summer and likes to run fast, to compete. But trail running is Kantor’s favorite way to get outside. It's become an important outlet for his physical and mental well-being.

"I love to be in nature and alone with my thoughts," he says. "I always compare running to meditation. It's such a great way to think through life and deal with stress."

It should be easy for Kantor to count on trail running any day of the week in a place like Missoula, which is home to many professional trail runners, including Western States winner Adam Peterman, Mike Foote and Jennifer Lichter, and Erin Clark. There are 91 parks, 60,000 acres of wilderness, and countless miles of maintained trails in Missoula County. Kantor can run to the ponderosa forests and rolling hills of Pattee Canyon from his house, or access the rugged Rattlesnake Mountains a few miles north of town.

A man running in the mountains in Montana
Trail running in Montana’s Rattlesnake Wilderness. (Photo: Nicholas Triolo)

But Montana's hotter and drier summers have made the wildfire season longer and more severe, plus it's made it harder for Kantor to count on safe running conditions. He learned early in his life that a high Air Quality Index (AQI) correlates with serious health risks and makes him feel sick. Kantor was recently diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma, making him even more vulnerable to respiratory harm.

RELATED: Should You Run in Smoky Air? Probably Not.

"When I can't get outside because it's too smoky, it affects my training, but beyond that, it makes me feel pent up and anxious," he says.

He told the judge that climate change has also contributed to feelings of depression and anxiety. He's been worried about climate change since he was four years old, after his parents took him to a screening of Chasing Ice, a documentary about glaciers melting in the Arctic. They didn’t expect him to really understand the film, he says.

"But I did and I was really upset," he remembers. He was crying when he got home. He wanted to know what he could do about it. Kantor’s parents suggested he write a letter to Montana's U.S. senators.

"I didn't even know how to write at the time," he says. "So, I told them what I wanted to say and we sent my letter to our senator."

Kantor says he didn't immediately become a consistent climate activist at the age of four, but he went on to write a few more letters, join climate strikes, and submit public comments on environmental issues. As he saw more signs of the climate crisis around Montana, and the government neglecting to take sufficient action, Kantor wanted to do more. So, when he had the opportunity to join Held v Montana, he jumped on it.

"It was a really good decision to join the case," he says. "It's making a bigger impact than I ever thought it could."

Running Into The Future

As the first legal ruling of its kind, many experts believe the landmark decision could influence other climate litigation, as it establishes a legal framework for protecting the right to a stable climate.

"Now young people have a constitutional right in their pocket to hold policymakers accountable," says Wood. "This court’s opinion has laid the groundwork for rulings to come."

A group talks in a courtroom about climate action.
Lead claimant Rikki Held, 22, confers with members of Our Children’s Trust legal team before the start of the nation’s first youth climate change trial at Montana’s First Judicial District Court on June 12, 2023 in Helena, Montana. (Photo: William Campbell/Getty Images)

The case will head to the Montana Supreme Court next, as the State of Montana appealed the district court's decision. Kantor will continue sharing his story, in and out of the courthouse, about how climate change has impeded his ability to get on trails and reap the benefits of nature.

He hopes other trail runners can find a similar path to climate action. He recommends writing letters to elected officials or submitting public comments on local or regional environmental issues to get started.

"Our future is very uncertain," he says. "But I hope that our generation can make a difference and we can keep running."

RELATED: The Optimist's Guide to Climate Change

Kantor has big hopes and dreams for his running. He's chasing PRs across multiple distances, aspires to run an ultra when he's older, and plans to race Running Up for Air Mt. Sentinel in February, a Missoula race aimed at amplifying dialogue about air quality solutions--where he wants to finish 16 miles with around 8,000 feet of climbing.

Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula, says that a race like Running Up for Air, where runners summit Mount Sentinel as many times as they can in 3, 6, or 12 hours, is perhaps the perfect metaphor for the climate fight in Montana. It can feel overwhelming to stand at the base of the 5,158-foot mountain and think about running unending laps in snow and ice, just as it can feel overwhelming to fight for climate action in a state with a "deep attachment to fossil fuels," she says.

But each step matters, in both running and climate action.

"We need people from every generation tackling this mountain, from those of us who have been working on climate solutions for years, to young activists like Mica who are bringing new energy and momentum when we most need it," says Cilimburg. "Youth like Mica are having an overwhelmingly positive impact in Montana, lighting a fire beneath us to keep moving as the clock keeps ticking."

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