Youth Plaintiffs Achieve First-of-Its-Kind Victory in Montana Climate Case
A Montana state judge, Monday, handed a significant win to young environmental activists by ruling that the state’s oil and gas policies infringe upon the constitutional rights of the youth to a safe and clean environment. The ruling, the first of its kind in U.S. history, is likely to have a broad impact across the legal landscape and could set a precedent for future cases.
Judge Kathy Seeley of the Lewis and Clark County District Court in Helena, Montana, found that an adjustment to the Montana Energy Policy Act (MEPA), which limits the environmental factors that must be considered for project permitting, violates the rights to a healthful environment enshrined in Montana’s constitution. The right is only present in three state constitutions, including Montana’s.
The case involved plaintiffs, aged 5 to 22, who testified directly about the detrimental climate impacts affecting their lives. Experts in climate science, policy researchers, and a delegate to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention all testified on their behalf.
Evidence presented during the two-week trial sought to prove that increasing carbon dioxide emissions are driving hotter temperatures, more drought and wildfires and decreased snowpack. The plaintiffs said those changes were harming their mental and physical health, with wildfire smoke choking the air they breathe and drought drying out rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreation. Native Americans testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs said climate change affects their ceremonies and traditional food sources.
The state argued that even if Montana completely stopped producing C02, it would have no effect on a global scale because states and countries around the world contribute to the amount of C02 in the atmosphere.
The decision was celebrated by advocates, including lawyers from the legal nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, who spearhead similar cases across the country. “Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people,” Our Children’s Trust Chief Legal Counsel, Julia Olson, said in a statement.
Legal experts say the Held vs. Montana case may influence other climate legal battles that feature rights-based claims, potentially paving the way for new lawsuits. Lawsuits that use a safe climate as an affirmative human or constitutional right are ubiquitous in courts worldwide, but success has been mixed for advocates filing these lawsuits in the US. That is slowly changing.
In addition to this ruling, the Hawaii Supreme Court recognized a human right to a stable climate in a March ruling against a biomass power plant developer. The emphasis on climate science and its direct connection to the harms alleged is a notable shift, according to Lewis & Clark Law School professor, Lisa Benjamin. It’s also notable that the court identifies policies and the law as barriers to a clean energy transition, Benjamin added. “Simply put, the court said these laws have to change,” Benjamin said.
The clear, constitutional language established in this ruling may also boost the push for affirmative climate rights in more than 15 other states considering similar provisions in their own constitutions, according to Maya van Rossum, founder of the Green Amendment for the Generations national movement.
Montana ranked 12th in the nation for its production of crude oil as of April 2023. The state is rich in both fossil fuels and renewable resources. About three-tenths of the nation’s estimated recoverable coal reserves are in Montana, and the northern and eastern areas of the state contain deposits of crude oil and natural gas.
Montana has substantial renewable energy resources, and in 2022 it ranked among the top 10 states with the largest share of electricity generated from renewables. Renewable energy, primarily hydropower, accounted for 53% of Montana’s in-state electricity generation.
The case is Held v. Montana, Mont. Dist. Ct., No. CDV-2020-307, Ruling 8/14/23
Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Reuters, Bloomberg.
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