A landmark trial that has been brewing since 2020 is set to begin this week in a Montana courtroom that could have a ripple effect across the rest of the US, even if there is little impact immediately seen in Montana itself.
Between June 12 and June 23, the Held v. State of Montana lawsuit will be pushed in court by 16 young people in a “#YouthPoweredClimateTrial.” It is the first trial of its kind in the USA.
Their aim is “to protect their equal rights to a healthy environment, life, dignity, and freedom,” by protecting their air and water quality, wildlife and public lands that are threatened by the consequences of climate change such as wildfires, drought, floods, heat and smoke, according to Youth v. Gov’s press office.
The group of young plaintiffs will argue that the state of Montana, in still embracing fossil fuels, are violating their own state laws.
Article II, Section 3 of Montana’s constitution states that: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment,” and Article IX, Section 1 states that: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
We are just ONE MONTH away from the country’s first-ever constitutional climate trial and first-ever children’s climate trial! Support youth climate plaintiffs in Montana and help spread the word: https://t.co/XhNkbLxGXi #YouthvGovMT pic.twitter.com/15cgnyomrr
— Our Children's Trust (@youthvgov) May 12, 2023
Speaking to Scientific American, Sandra Zellmer, director of Land Use and Natural Resources Clinic at the University of Montana School of Law said: “To have the ability to go to trial and submit evidence that the advancement of fossil fuels has an effect on the climate and warming … that’s a pretty tremendous thing.”
“It’s monumental that this is getting to trial in a state like Montana,” Zellmer says.
Finding that Montana authorities have approved fossil fuel projects without considering the climate impacts would send a powerful message. Although the trial could have little impact in Montana, a win by the plaintiff would set the precedent for similar trials across the US and bolster other efforts in climate litigation.
Montana and fossil fuels
Montana is rich in fossil fuels, holding about 30% of America’s estimated recoverable coal reserves, with deposits of crude oil and natural gas in its northern and eastern regions, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)
The EIA also says that Montana has the highest residential sector per capita energy consumption of any state, meaning that households’ consumption here, at 92.5 British thermal units (Btu), is the highest in the United States.
Last Monday, State Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, asked for the case Held v. Montana to be dismissed but he was unsuccessful.
Montana, with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte at the helm, has passed a law which could be considered the USA’s most aggressive anti-climate law. The policy bans state agencies from considering climate change when permitting large projects.
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Where Held v. Montana is concerned, Republican members of the court are dismissive of their impact on the climate. State Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick said: “We have so many better things to do in our courtrooms than worry about climate change.”
As Fitzpatrick believes: “We are 1 million people in a country of 300 million, on a planet with close to 7 billion people. There is nothing that we are doing in the state of Montana that in any conceivable way can affect the climate of the Earth. That’s the science.”
Regardless of the trial’s outcome, the case sends a message to other young people and climate activists across the USA that climate charges against the state are worth being taken seriously in a court of law.
Historic Held v. State of Montana trial is less than a month away! Join us on the countdown to trial + take action in support of youth plaintiffs: https://t.co/XhNkbLxGXi #HeldMakesHistory #YouthvGovMT #YouthPoweredClimateTrial pic.twitter.com/cglIbqdYRT
— Our Children's Trust (@youthvgov) May 16, 2023
The trial is also important when it comes to young people building a platform for themselves in climate and legal action.
Speaking to Flathead Beacon, a Montana news agency, 22 year-old lead challenger Rikki Held said: “As youth, we are exposed to a lot of knowledge about climate change. We can’t keep passing it on to the next generation when we’re being told about all the impacts that are already happening.”
“In some ways, our generation feels a lot of pressure, kind of a burden, to make something happen because it’s our lives that are at risk,” she says.
Win or lose, Held v. Montana is a landmark in holding state authorities accountable for their polluting actions as well as paving the way for younger people to productively engage in the legal world of climate activism.
You can follow along with the trial over the next two weeks on Youth v. Gov’s page.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: A coal mine in Bearcreek, Montana . Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.