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Montana Sued by Youth Activists Over its Climate Change Culpability

23 Aug 2023

What is happening?

On August 14, the US saw a landmark ruling for climate change law. Led by young activists, the case saw the state of Montana sued for its promotion of fossil fuel use, marking the first time in US history that a youth-led climate case has gone to trial, as 14 previous youth-led cases were dismissed (as per the UN Environmental Programme Report).

The 16 young activists, aged between 5 and 22, were represented by Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based environmental law firm. The group argued that Montana’s promotion of fossil fuels was provoking climate change and was fundamentally a violation of the state’s constitution. 22-year-old plaintiff Rikki Helf testified emotionally that increasingly adverse weather events were harming her family’s ranch, as well as her own mental health; while Native American plaintiff Sariel Sandova asserted that climate change was threatening native lands and culture.

However, such claims faced rebuttal from the state of Montana, represented by Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who contended that extreme weather could not be attributed to climate change or Montana’s fossil fuel use specifically. Essentially, Montana’s role in climate change was “too miniscule” to warrant any need for sacrificing fossil fuels.

Judge Kathy Seeley sided with the youth activists, citing the constitution in doing so: Montana’s Declaration of Rights contains a rare term which states that its citizens have the “right to a clean and healthful environment” (Article II, Section 3). Since Montana was not paying attention to emissions risks when dealing permits to companies to undertake fossil fuel-consuming projects, Judge Seeley argued that the state was violating this section of the constitution. She subsequently denied two laws which would have allowed state agencies to bypass environmental considerations for projects requiring the use of fossil fuels. It marks the first time that a court has argued that a safe climate is inextricable from “a clean and healthful environment” in US history.

Nate Bellinger, the Senior Attorney for Our Children’s Trust, described the ruling as representative of “climate justice” and the protection of children’s “constitutional rights”. It is the first case that the Trust has won in this domain, having tried and failed to win similar cases earlier in other states. What is in it for you?

The impact of the ruling for our readers in Montana is uncertain. It is now in the hands of state legislators to decide whether future projects should proceed based on emission risks. Montana's legislators are predominantly Republican and Montana contributed as the US’ 5th major state coal producer in 2021. Just because state agencies must now give greater consideration to emission risks, this will not necessarily translate to an improved environment and air quality.

It is particularly important that it was young people who were able to win the case, since it lends legitimacy to future youth-led climate cases, and serves as an acknowledgement of the fact that it is the youth who will be most affected by future climate change. It can act as a source of great encouragement for youth activists looking to pursue climate justice. For instance, the Montana ruling will inspire the youth-led climate case in Hawaii pertaining to the Maui wildfires, a case which will also be overseen by Our Children’s Trust. The youths will look to argue the state transportation agency’s embrace of fossil fuels has provoked climate change, and so has in part been responsible for the wildfires.

The ruling’s impact will be most significant on the national scale. For our US-based readers, the ruling is indicative that the courts can be used as a legitimate tool to pursue climate justice. The factual findings of the case stated that climate change is real and carbon emissions cause harm, an important conclusion given that climate change remains such an intensely debated topic in US politics. According to Michael Gerrard of the Sabin Center for Climate Change, the ruling affirms the “constitutional right to a clean environment”. It can consequently encourage other cases being debated nationally, with dozens of other cities and states similarly attempting to sue oil producers for their culpability in climate change. Alongside Montana, only New York and Pennsylvania share the “healthful environment” section in their constitutions, however states such as Iowa are currently pushing for the introduction of a “green amendment”, something that this case will surely support.  What happens next?

It is likely that the state of Montana will appeal the ruling. Emily Flower, the Attorney General’s spokesperson, has branded the ruling as an “absurd…publicity stunt”, and has pledged to appeal the ruling. Those allied with the fossil fuel industry have deemed the victory a mere blip that will not pass through appeal. A similar youth-led case in Australia in 2021 ruled that the Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, had a duty of care to protect youths from the climate crisis when considering fossil fuel use. Just a year later, however, this case was successfully appealed and overturned by Ley. There is a legitimate fear that the Montana ruling may suffer this same fate.

It is worth noting, though, that if the case is successfully appealed, it is likely this will be on legal grounds rather than over the factual findings of the case. 

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