On August 14, 2023, Judge Kathy Seeley sided with the young climate activists who sued the state of Montana for violating their “clean and healthful environment” by allowing the development of fossil fuel projects without taking into account their climate impact.
Julia Olson, the executive director of Our Children’s Trust — which brought the case to trial — stated that “[t]his is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy and for our climate.”
Held v. State of Montana, the first constitutional and youth-led climate lawsuit to make it to trial in the USA, began in June 2023. The plaintiffs were 16 young people aged 5 to 22.
BREAKING! In historic first, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled wholly in favor of the 16 youth plaintiffs in Held v. State of Montana, declaring that the state of Montana violated the youth’s constitutional climate rights. Read press release: https://t.co/pybs9kaUJs #YouthvGovMT pic.twitter.com/R1CHjeNWLR
— Our Children's Trust (@youthvgov) August 14, 2023
Montana’s Environmental Policies
The young activists’ lawsuit targeted the Montana Environmental Policy Act’s provision that prevents the state from evaluating the climate impact of energy projects when considering permit requests.
This was made possible as a result of the House Bill 971, signed into law by the Republican Governor of Montana Greg Gianforte on May 10, 2023.
The bill was opposed by climate and environmental groups, who demanded that the state takes responsibility for the bill’s impact on climate change.
Shortly after the bill was signed, Anne Hedges, Montana Environmental Information Center’s Director of policy and legislative affairs, said she anticipated the bill would become a subject of a constitutional lawsuit.
“Climate change is real, it matters, the climate is part of our environment, and we cannot ignore the changes that are occurring. Ignoring it doesn’t make it better,” Hedges said in May.
Montana is home to America’s largest recoverable coal reserves. The state, according to the plaintiff’s attorney, has never denied a permit for fossil fuel projects.
Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming and pose a great risk to all living species. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, account for 75% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
The consequences can be droughts, storms, temperature spikes, and loss of species, among other things. The extreme weather the world is witnessing lately should ring a bell.
Montana Loses the Climate Lawsuit
The group filed the lawsuit against the state of Montana in March 2020, claiming that the state’s pro-fossil fuel policies were hindering their future and damaging the environment.
The state of Montana was brought to trial on June 12, 2023, more than three years after the lawsuit was filed. The group of environmental activists demanded that the state protect their right to a “healthy environment, life, dignity, and freedom,” which should be guaranteed by Montana’s constitution.
“The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations,” reads Article IX, section 1 of Montana’s constitution.
The state’s defense: Climate change is a global issue and reducing Montana’s emissions will not make a difference at the global level; overturning the law would have “no meaningful impact or appreciable effect” on the climate, state attorneys said, as well as that the plaintiffs should work on it through legislation if they want to make a difference.
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On June 20, the trial came to a close. Almost two months later, on August 14, Judge Seeley ruled in favor of the young plaintiffs; she determined that Montana’s emissions could be traced to the policy preventing assessments of the climate impact of energy projects, and that the policy thus harms the environment and young activists.
Judge Seeley declared the Montana Environmental Policy Act provision unconstitutional and invalidated it, writing:
“Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury.”
Emily Flower, a spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, described the decision as “absurd” and confirmed that the state will appeal.
Regardless of whether or not the decision is upheld, this landmark case could encourage similar rulings in the future, empower activists, and ignite climate action.
As Julia Olson put it:
“As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos.”
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Our Children’s Trust, plaintiffs in the landmark climate lawsuit Held v Montana, June 2023. Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.