Judge rules in favor of youth in landmark Montana climate trial

In a first-of-its-kind judgment across the country, A Montana state court ruled Monday In support of the youth who accused the government of violating their right to a “clean and healthy environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels.

The court determined that a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act had harmed the state’s environment and the young plaintiffs by preventing Montana from considering the climate impacts of energy projects. Accordingly, the court held that the provision was unconstitutional.

Experts say the victory could energize the environmental movement and reshape climate litigation across the country, creating a wave of lawsuits aimed at advancing action on climate change.

“People all over the world are watching this case,” said Michael Gerard, founder of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in Columbia.

The ruling represents a rare victory for climate activists who have tried to use the courts to challenge government policies and industry actions they say are harming the planet. In this case, it involved 16 young Montanans, ages 5 to 22, who brought the nation’s first constitutional and first youth-led climate lawsuit to trial.

More than the cumulative number of climate cases worldwide Doubled Over the past five years, youth-led litigation in America has faced an uphill battle. Already, at least 14 of these cases have been dismissed, according to a July report by the United Nations Environment Program and the Sabin Center. About three-quarters of the approximately 2,200 ongoing or completed cases have been filed in courts in the United States, the report said.

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Experts said Montana youth have an advantage in the state’s constitution, which guarantees the right to a “clean and healthy environment.”

Coal is important to the state’s economy, and Montana has the largest coal reserves in the nation. The plaintiff’s attorneys say the government never denied a permit for the fossil fuel project.

During five days of emotional testimony in June, young people told of their injuries as a result of climate change. A 15-year-old boy with asthma described himself as “a prisoner in my own home” when he was quarantined with Covid during heavy bushfire smoke. Ricky Held, the 22-year-old plaintiff named in the lawsuit, described how the extreme weather affected his family’s farm.

Held testified that a favorable ruling would make her more promising in the future. “I know climate change is a global issue, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part in it,” he said.

State attorneys responded that Montana’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is small. If the law in question is changed or overturned, there will be “no meaningful impact or appreciable effect” on the climate, said Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell.

The government began and rested its defense the same day, ending the case unexpectedly early On June 20. At the core of its expected defense, denying the climate science behind the plaintiffs’ case, the government focused on arguing that the legislature should weigh competing law, not jurisprudence.

Russell derided the case in his closing statement, calling it “a week’s airing of political grievances that belong to the Legislature, not to a court.”

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Gerrard said the change in strategy came as a surprise: “Everyone expected them to be more aggressive in defense,” he said. “And they may have decided that the basic science of climate change is so strong that they don’t want to contest it.”

While the state is expected to appeal the decision, experts said the ruling in favor of the youths will reflect how judges in other states approach similar cases and prompt them to use “judicial courage” in addressing climate change. Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiffs, has filed lawsuits on behalf of the youth in all 50 states, and has cases pending in four.

Juliana v. United States, a 2015 case brought to international attention by Our Children’s Foundation, has returned to trial after repeated setbacks. The suit targets the federal government, accusing it of violating the life, liberty and property rights of 21 young people and failing to protect public trust resources in taking actions that contribute to climate change.

Bill Gregory, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the court’s ruling will empower young people everywhere to go to court to protect their futures.

“Political decisions are made without regard to the best scientific evidence and the consequences they have for our younger generations,” he said. “It’s a tremendous result.”

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