Judge rules in favor of Montana youth in landmark climate case (2023)



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The court found that young people have a constitutional right to a healthy environment and that the state must consider potential climate harm when approving projects.

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Judge rules in favor of Montana youth in landmark climate case (1)

VonDavid GellesAndMike Baker

A group of young people in Montana won a landmark lawsuit Monday when athe judge ruledthat the state's failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects is unconstitutional.

The decision in the lawsuit, Hero v. Montana, came during a record-breaking summer anddeadly forest firesmarks a victory in the growing battle against government support for oil, gas and coal, the burning of which is rapidly warming the planet.

"As wildfires fueled by fossil fuel pollution rage across the West, today's crisis in Montana is a watershed moment and marks a turning point in this generation's effort to save the planet from the devastating effects of man-made climate chaos," said Julia Olson. founder of Our Children's Trust, a nonprofit legal group that brought the case on behalf of the youth. “This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy and for our climate. There will certainly be more crises of this kind."

The decision means Montana, a major coal and natural gas producing state that gets a third of its energy from burning coal, must consider climate change when deciding whether to approve or renew fossil fuel projects.

The Montana Attorney General said the state will appeal, which will take the case to the state Supreme Court.

"This ruling is absurd but not surprising from a judge who asked plaintiffs' lawyers to stage a week-long, taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial," said Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General. Austin Knudsen. statement. "Montanans cannot be held responsible for climate change."

The case is part of a wave of climate change-related lawsuits targeting companies and governments around the world. states and cities areLawsuit against companies like Exxon, Chevron and ShellThey demand compensation for climate disasters and claim that companies have known for decades that their products are responsible for global warming. And individuals are now suing state and federal governments, claiming they allowed the fossil fuel industry and failed to protect their citizens.

Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Litigation at Columbia University, said the Montana case will resonate across the country.

"This was climate science under scrutiny and what the court found is that the science is correct," Mr Burger said. "Emissions contribute to climate change, climate damage is real, people face climate damage individually, and every ton of greenhouse gas emissions matters." These are important findings of fact, and other courts in the United States and around the world will review this decision."

The Montana caserevolved around language in the state constitutionwhich guarantees residents "the right to a clean and healthy environment" and states that the state and individuals are responsible for preserving and improving the environment "for present and future generations".

A handful of other states have similar guarantees, and young people in Hawaii, Utah and Virginia have filed lawsuits that are slowly making their way through the courts. A youth-led federal case that has been stalled for years is back on its feet and faces a June trial in Oregon.

"It's monumental," said Badge Busse, 15, one of the Montana plaintiffs. "It's an absolutely beautiful thing. Hopefully this positive upward trend will continue."

The Montana case, brought by plaintiffs between the ages of 5 and 22, was the first of its kind to go to trial in the United States. While the state argued that Montana's emissions were extremely small compared to the rest of the world, the plaintiffs argued that the state should have done more to examine how emissions contribute to drought, wildfires and other growing risks in a state that estimates untouched nature.

Since 2011, state law has prohibited officials from considering "actual or potential impacts of a regional, national or global nature" when conducting environmental assessments of major projects. In May, while the case was pending, lawmakers updated the law to be even clearer, barring the state from "estimating greenhouse gas emissions and related climate impacts within or across state lines" if it decides to approve new projects.

Montana has 5,000 natural gas wells, 4,000 oil wells, four oil refineries and six coal mines. The state is "a major emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, in absolute terms, per capita and historically," Montana District Court Judge Kathy Seeley wrote. The court totaled the amount of fossil fuels mined, burned, refined and exported by the state and concluded that Montana is responsible for as much carbon dioxide as Argentina, the Netherlands or Pakistan.

In her ruling, the judge noted that the state's emissions "are a demonstrably significant factor" in climate impacts. Laws that limit regulators' ability to consider climate impacts are unconstitutional, he ruled.

He added that Montans "have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes climate as part of the environment's life support system."

The process,which took place in June, included statements from climate scientists detailing how increases in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are already harming health and the environment, and how those impacts would likely increase if action is not taken.

Many of the young plaintiffs testified about the effects they saw -- extreme weather events threatening family farming, warming rivers and streams harming fish, smoke from wildfires worsening asthma and disruptions to nature affecting indigenous traditions. They also talked about the cost of their sanity and the stress they felt as they contemplated a future clouded by environmental collapse.

The government, which had a week to present its defense, fell silent after a day and did not summon its chief expert, surprising many legal experts.

While Montana has a rich mining history and Helena is dominated by oil, gas and coal interests, the state also has deep environmental traditions. When Montana passed a new constitution in 1972, a provision was included stating that the state must "maintain and promote a clean and healthy environment in Montana for present and future generations."

The origin of the casego back almost a decade. In 2011, Our Children's Trust was establishedpetitioned the Montana Supreme Courtto decide that the state has a duty to address climate change. The court declined to comment, effectively ordering the team to start in the lower courts. Attorneys for Our Children's Trust identified potential plaintiffs, documented the effects of climate change in Montana, and documented the state's extensive support for the fossil fuel industry, which includes permits, subsidies, and favorable regulations.

"The legal community was afraid that judges wouldn't understand these cases and screwed them up," Ms. Olson said of Judge Seeley's decision. "It was understandable, he understood, and the results were beautiful."

Correction made

August 16, 2023


An earlier version of this article misstated the origin of the "clean and healthy environment" provision of the Montana state constitution. It was adopted in 1972 as part of a new constitution. It was not the result of a constitutional amendment.

How we handle corrections

David Gellesis a correspondent for the editorial team on climate and covers the interface between public policy and the private sector. Keep following himLinkedInand Twitter. More about David Gelles

Mike Bakeris the Seattle office manager, reporting primarily from the Northwest and Alaska. More about Mike Baker

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