Montana Youth Sued Their Government Over Climate Change and Won. Here’s Why That’s a Big Deal

A Montana judge issued a landmark ruling this week, siding with a group of young plaintiffs who accused their state government of violating their constitutional right to “a clean and healthful environment” by promoting fossil fuel development without considering how those projects contribute to climate change. 

In 2020, 16 young Montanans, whose ages today range from 5 to 22, filed the legal complaint against their state government. Their case was finally heard in court back in June. Montana is one of just three states that gives residents the right to a healthy environment under the state constitution’s bill of rights—a provision known as a Green Amendment.

In her decision, issued Monday, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that a Montana policy that prohibits state agencies from evaluating the effects of greenhouse gas emissions when permitting energy projects was unconstitutional. “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” to the plaintiffs, Seeley wrote.

State officials called the decision “absurd” and are planning to appeal it. But legal experts say that if the ruling stands, it could inspire similar lawsuits, strengthen climate-related cases in other states and set a new legal precedent over whether governments have a duty to protect citizens from the consequences of global warming.

“I think this is the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court,” Michael Gerrard, founder and director of Columbia Law School ’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said in an interview with Inside Climate News. “The court issued a 103-page decision that found that fossil fuel use is the principal cause of climate change, which is in turn causing serious health and environmental impacts that will continue to get worse.”

Montana has long benefited from a bustling fossil fuel industry and contains the largest recoverable coal reserves in the U.S. And state Republicans have fought tirelessly over the years to thwart policies that could threaten the bottom line of coal, oil and gas companies in the state. In May, they passed what could be considered the nation’s most anti-climate law.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued during the two-week trial that the state’s policies promoting fossil fuels exacerbated climate change, which is harming their clients’ mental and physical health by exposing them to toxic wildfire smoke and other unhealthy conditions, as well as depriving them of resources and recreation by exacerbating drought conditions that dry out rivers in the state.

One 15-year-old plaintiff with asthma, for example, described himself as “a prisoner in my own home” during pandemic lockdowns, which coincided with a period of intense wildfire smoke in Montana.

The state argued that Montana’s carbon emissions are insignificant compared to worldwide emissions and can’t be blamed for the global scale of climate change. But the judge said the state failed to give a compelling reason for why their agencies didn’t consider greenhouse gas emissions while permitting energy projects.

Legal experts said the ruling could have broad ramifications in the U.S. and abroad. Climate change-related lawsuits have skyrocketed in recent years, with cases around the globe, both to advance and to stymie climate action, more than doubling since 2017, according to a joint report from the United Nations and Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

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

Maya van Rossum, an environmental lawyer and head of the Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit, said in a statement that Monday’s ruling marks the first time a court has interpreted a state right to a healthy environment to also include a healthy climate. She said the decision could influence how courts interpret similar constitutional provisions in other states. 

New York and Pennsylvania also have Green Amendments in their constitutions, while Hawaii, Massachusetts, Illinois and Rhode Island have similar provisions in their constitutions, but outside their bills of rights, making them harder to enforce legally.

Campaigns advocating for the adoption of Green Amendments have sprung up in several other states, including New Mexico, Kentucky and Connecticut. Van Rossum said the Montana decision could also provide momentum for those campaigns.

But most youth-led cases related to climate change have run into major hurdles in the U.S., the U.N. report said, with at least 14 youth-led lawsuits being dismissed by judges who said the cases lacked standing or made arguments outside the purview of the courts.

Another U.S. lawsuit—Juliana v. United States, filed in 2015 by Our Children’s Trust on behalf of 21 young plaintiffs—remains pending in the legal system. That lawsuit alleges that the federal government’s failure to limit greenhouse gas emissions and protect public trust resources violates the youths’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.

In that sense, the Montana decision could also reassure some potential plaintiffs hoping to file similar lawsuits in the future that they’ll see their day in court rather than having their cases dismissed.

“The Montana decision is a remarkable win for young climate activists who have been bringing suits across the United States, Canada and Europe,” David Dana, a professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law and the school’s leading environmental law scholar, said in a press release. “The decision could be a roadmap for judges inclined to adjudicate these cases, rather than dismiss them as too political or unwieldy for courts to handle”—which, he noted, has happened elsewhere.

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