Young Climate Change Plaintiffs Win Historic Victory in Montana

A state judge ruled on Monday that Montana’s policies, which forbid the state from taking climate change effects into account when evaluating coal mining, natural gas extraction, and other fossil fuel projects, violate the rights of young people.

Judge Kathy Seeley’s ruling in Helena was a significant victory in the first youth-led climate case to go to trial in the United States and may impact instances like this in other parts of the country.

In her decision, Seeley stated that it had been established that Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are “a substantial factor” in the environmental injury caused by climate change to the young plaintiffs in Montana.

Despite a 1972 amendment to the Montana constitution requiring the state to conserve and promote the environment, the 16 plaintiffs, aged 2 to 18, sued Montana in 2020, alleging that the state’s authorization of projects, including coal and natural gas production worsened the climate issue.

Plaintiffs have a “fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment,” according to Seeley. She argued that it is illegal for laws to forbid state agencies from considering climate change and emissions when authorizing fossil fuel projects.

The youngsters had contended in a June trial that despite its small population, Montana is accountable for excessive global emissions. In addition to being the location of the pipelines and other infrastructure required to export these fuels, the state is a significant producer of coal, oil, and gas shipped to other locations.

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Young People Win Historic Victory

During the trial, a number of the young plaintiffs testified and discussed how climate change has impacted their lives.

On her family’s ranch in eastern Montana, lead plaintiff Rikki Held, 22, claimed that droughts had left “skinny cows and dead cattle” behind and that wildfires have caused ash to fall from the sky.

The plaintiffs had failed to establish that the global catastrophe might be linked to Montana’s relatively low emissions, according to the state, and courts shouldn’t decide climate policy, it was claimed.

The verdict was described as “absurd” and Seeley as an “ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward” by a Montana attorney general’s office representative on Monday. According to the spokeswoman, the state intends to appeal.

Our Children’s Trust lawyer Julia Olson hailed the verdict as a “huge win for Montana” and predicted that similar rulings would soon be made in other states on behalf of the minors.

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Seeley’s conclusions, which include the fact that climate change poses a significant threat to human health and the environment, could “become an inspiration” for legal actions in states with analogous constitutional provisions, according to Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, and make it more difficult for defendants to dismiss climate concerns.

The verdict was “the strongest on climate change ever issued by any court,” he claimed.

One of several incidents involving youth-led climate change in the United States. The second lawsuit in the nation to go to trial is one brought by young people in Hawaii against the state’s Department of Transportation. After being rejected by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020, a case brought against the U.S. government was reopened in June.

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