Montana Court Rules in Favor of Young Plaintiffs in Historic ‘Climate Trial’

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By The Vanguard

HELENA, MT – For the first time since a spate of lawsuits in the U.S. have been filed against states for causing climate change, a judge here this week ruled in the first constitutional climate trial in favor of a group of young plaintiffs who charged state officials in Montana with violating their right to a healthy environment, according to a story in The Guardian.

“The challengers’ lawyers described the first-of-its-kind ruling as a ‘gamechanger’ and a ‘sweeping win,’ which campaigners hope will give a boost to similar cases tackling the climate crisis…in a case that made headlines around the US and internationally, 16 plaintiffs, aged five to 22, had alleged the state government’s pro-fossil fuel policies contributed to climate change,” wrote The Guardian.

In trial hearings in June, they testified that these “policies therefore violated provisions in the state constitution that guarantee a ‘clean and healthful environment,’ among other constitutional protections.

Judge Kathy Seeley, wrote The Guardian, said “that by prohibiting government agencies from considering climate impacts when deciding whether or not to permit energy projects, Montana is contributing to the climate crisis and stopping the state from addressing that crisis, in a 103-page order.  

“My initial reaction is, we’re pretty over the moon,” Melissa Hornbein, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center who represented the plaintiffs in the 2020 lawsuit said, reacting to the news. “It’s a very good order.”

Julia Olson, who founded Our Children’s Trust, the non-profit law firm that brought the suit alongside Western Environmental Law Center and McGarvey Law in Montana and other states, said the case marks the first time in US history that the merits of a case led a court to rule that a government violated young people’s constitutional rights by promoting fossil fuels, The Guardian said.

“In a sweeping win for our clients, the Honorable Judge Kathy Seeley declared Montana’s fossil fuel-promoting laws unconstitutional and enjoined their implementation,” she said. “As fires rage in the west, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a gamechanger that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos.”

The challengers had alleged that they ‘have been and will continue to be harmed by the dangerous impacts of fossil fuels and the climate crisis.’ Similar suits have been filed by young people across the US, but Held v Montana was the first case to reach a trial,” said The Guardian.

The Guardian reported, “Among the policies the challengers targeted was a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) barring the state from considering how its energy economy impacts climate change. This year, state lawmakers amended the provision to specifically ban the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews for new energy projects.”

But that provision is unconstitutional, Seeley ruled, noting, “By prohibiting consideration of climate change, [greenhouse gas] emissions, and how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana constitution, the MEPA limitation violates plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment,” Seeley said.

The legislature had previously amended the law to prevent environmental reviews from considering “regional, national or global” environmental impacts – a provision the original complaint called the “climate change exception,” The Guardian story reported. 

When lawmakers changed the provision again in 2023, the state’s attorneys said that should have rendered the lawsuit moot, but Seeley rejected the argument in May, and also enjoined another 2023 state policy which put stricter parameters around groups’ ability to sue government agencies over permitting decisions under the Montana Environmental Policy Act. 

That policy “eliminates MEPA litigants’ remedies that prevent irreversible degradation of the environment, and it fails to further a compelling state interest,” rendering it unconstitutional, Seeley wrote.

State lawyers, according to The Guardian story, argued that “Montana’s contributions to the climate crisis are too small to make any meaningful contribution to the climate crisis. But in her ruling, Seeley found that the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are “nationally and globally significant…Montana’s GHG emissions cause and contribute to climate change and plaintiffs’ injuries and reduce the opportunity to alleviate plaintiffs’ injuries.”

The judge also confirmed the plaintiff’s claim that fossil fuels cause climate change, noting every additional ton of greenhouse gas pollution warms the planet, and that harms to the plaintiffs “will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change,” The Guardian wrote.

“Judge Seeley really understood not only the issues of law, but the very complex scientific issues surrounding the climate crisis as well as clearly the impacts on these particular plaintiffs,” Hornbein said.

Michael Gerrard, the founder of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, praised Seeley’s order, adding in an email to The Guardian, “I think this is the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court.”

Several other states and around 150 other countries have a right to a healthy environment explicitly stated in their constitutions. This ruling may inspire similar lawsuits around the world, suggested proponents.

The Guardian said, “The plaintiffs’ lawyers very effectively put on the stand several young Montana residents who testified how they were personally affected negatively by climate change. Putting a human face on this global problem worked well in this courtroom, and may well be followed elsewhere.

Montana succeeded in narrowing the scope of the lawsuit during pre-trial motions. The lawsuit originally challenged the state energy policy, which directs statewide energy production and use, for promoting fossil fuel development, but this year, lawmakers overturned that law and weeks later, Seeley dismissed that part of the case.”

The state has 60 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to the Montana supreme court, but plaintiffs said the verdict sets a positive tone for the future of youth-led climate lawsuits.

Youth-led constitutional climate lawsuits, brought by Our Children’s Trust, are also pending in four other states. One of those cases, brought by Hawaii youth plaintiffs, is set to go to trial in June 2024, attorneys announced last week, reported The Guardian.

There is also a federal lawsuit filed by Our Children’s Trust, 2015’s Juliana v United States, and in June, a federal court ruled in favor of the youth plaintiffs, allowing that their claims can be decided at trial in open court.  

“The case in Montana is a clear sign that seeking climate justice through the courts is a viable and powerful strategy,” said Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists, according to The Guardian.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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