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Youth wins climate case against U.S. state of Montana in first-of-its-kind legal ruling

  • A landmark ruling found the state of Montana violated young people’s constitutional rights to a “clean and healthful environment,” marking the first time a U.S. court has connected the government’s fossil fuel promotion with harm to youth from climate change neglect.
  • The case, Held vs. State of Montana, involved 16 Montana youths aged 5 to 22 who aimed to protect their rights to a healthy environment, dignity and freedom.
  • During the trial, youth plaintiffs and expert witnesses argued that the state violated their constitutional right to a clean environment, including safeguarding air, water, wildlife and public lands from climate-related threats like droughts, wildfires and floods.
  • Judge Kathy Seeley of Montana’s First Judicial District Court ruled in favor of the young plaintiffs, stating that laws prohibiting climate change consideration in fossil fuel activities were unconstitutional; the decision highlighted climate impacts, irreversible injuries from greenhouse gas emissions, and the need for science-based climate measures.

A historic ruling established that the state of Montana violated youths’ constitutional rights to a “clean and healthful environment.” This victory marks the first time in U.S. history that a court has declared that government actions promoting fossil fuels endangers the well-being of young people.

The lawsuit, Held vs. State of Montana, involves 16 Montana youth aged 5 to 22 who took legal action to safeguard their rights to a healthy environment, life, dignity and freedom. The youth were represented by attorneys with the nonprofit U.S.  law firm Our Children’s Trust, the Western Environmental Law Center, and McGarvey Law.

“I’m so speechless right now,” said Eva, one of the youth plaintiffs. “I’m really just excited and elated and thrilled. I cannot believe the ruling. I’m just so relieved.”

During the two-week trial, the youth plaintiffs and 10 expert witnesses argued that the state violated Article II, Section 3 of Montana’s Constitution, which states: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment.” They made the case that this includes protecting their air, water, wildlife and public lands from the escalating threats of droughts, heat waves, wildfires, smoke and floods.

Plaintiffs Lander, Badge, Taleah and Mica. Image courtesy of Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust.

Judge Kathy Seeley of the First Judicial District Court of Montana ruled in favor of the 16 young plaintiffs. The plaintiffs did not seek money in their lawsuit.

“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,” said Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust.

The decision, spanning more than 100 pages, articulates critical findings regarding the rights of youth to a safe climate. Some key points include recognizing that additional emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) worsen climate impacts, the dangers of “irreversible climate injuries” from continued GHG emissions, and the necessity of science-based measures to combat climate change.

“This case is about the state’s affirmative actions — things Montana’s state government has actually done and continues to do — to create and exacerbate climate change and violate the constitutional rights of the youth plaintiffs,” Our Children’s Trust said. “For example, state agencies permit the extraction of Montana’s vast coal reserves, as well as the extraction of oil and gas, and lease state lands for fossil fuel activities.”

The state has 60 days to consider an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. According to NPR, Emily Flower, a spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, criticized the decision and said they plan to appeal.

“Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate,” Flower told NPR. “Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. It should have been here as well, but they found an ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward and earn herself a spot in their next documentary.”

Saint Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. Thirty percent of the Park’s glaciers have disappeared as of 2015. Image by Ken Thomas (Public domain).

Attorney Roger Sullivan of McGarvey Law said the decision establishes “enforceable principles of intergenerational justice,” emphasizing that the current government is obligated to pass on a stable climate system to future generations.

In 2019, Montana emitted approximately 32 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, comparable to the total emissions of entire nations such as Ecuador, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden or Switzerland. Montana has warmed by about 1.4° Celsius (2.5° Fahrenheit) over the past century.

Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and byproduct of burning fossil fuels, traps heat in the atmosphere and plays a significant role in climate change. Recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that this spring, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached their highest point in more than 4 million years.

“This ruling, this case; it is truly historic. We are heard!” youth plaintiff Kian said in a statement. “Frankly the elation and joy in my heart is overwhelming in the best way. We set the precedent not only for the United States, but for the world.”

Banner image of youth plaintiffs Taleah, Mica and Grace in 2022. Image courtesy of Robin Loznak/Our Children’s Trust.

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