US Court Rules in Favor of Young Activists in Climate Trial

Youth plaintiffs walk to court before closing arguments in the landmark Held v Montana climate trial in Helena, Montana on 20 June 2023. Photograph: Robin Loznak/ZUMA Press Wire/Shutterstock

The judge who heard the US’s first constitutional climate trial earlier this year has ruled in favor of a group of young plaintiffs who had accused state officials in Montana of violating their right to a healthy environment.

“I’m so speechless right now,” Eva, a plaintiff who was 14 when the suit was filed, said in a statement. “I’m really just excited and elated and thrilled.”

The challengers’ lawyers described the first-of-its-kind ruling as a “game-changer” and a “sweeping win” which campaigners hope will give a boost to similar cases tackling the climate crisis.

In a case that made headlines around the US and internationally, 16 plaintiffs, aged five to 22, had alleged the state government’s pro-fossil fuel policies contributed to climate change.

In trial hearings in June, they testified that that these policies therefore violated provisions in the state constitution that guarantee a “clean and healthful environment,” among other constitutional protections.

On Monday, Judge Kathy Seeley said that by prohibiting government agencies from considering climate impacts when deciding whether or not to permit energy projects, Montana is contributing to the climate crisis and stopping the state from addressing that crisis. The 103-page order came several weeks after the closely watched trial came to a close on 20 June.

“My initial reaction is, we’re pretty over the moon,” Melissa Hornbein, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center who represented the plaintiffs in the 2020 lawsuit said, reacting to the news. “It’s a very good order.”

Julia Olson, who founded Our Children’s Trust, the non-profit law firm that brought the suit alongside Western Environmental Law Center and McGarvey Law, said the case marks the first time in US history that the merits of a case led a court to rule that a government violated young people’s constitutional rights by promoting fossil fuels.

“In a sweeping win for our clients, the Honorable Judge Kathy Seeley declared Montana’s fossil fuel-promoting laws unconstitutional and enjoined their implementation,” she said. “As fires rage in the west, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos.”

The challengers had alleged that they “have been and will continue to be harmed by the dangerous impacts of fossil fuels and the climate crisis.” Similar suits have been filed by young people across the US, but Held v Montana was the first case to reach a trial.

Among the policies the challengers targeted was a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) barring the state from considering how its energy economy impacts climate change. This year, state lawmakers amended the provision to specifically ban the state from considering greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews for new energy projects.

That provision is unconstitutional, Seeley ruled.

“By prohibiting consideration of climate change, [greenhouse gas] emissions, and how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana constitution, the MEPA limitation violates plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment,” Seeley wrote.

The legislature had previously amended the law to prevent environmental reviews from considering “regional, national or global” environmental impacts – a provision the original complaint called the “climate change exception”. When lawmakers changed the provision again in 2023, thestate’s attorneys said that should have rendered the lawsuit moot, but Seeley rejected the argument in May.

In her Monday ruling, Seeley also enjoined another 2023 state policy which put stricter parameters around groups’ ability to sue government agencies over permitting decisions under the Montana Environmental Policy Act. That policy “eliminates MEPA litigants’ remedies that prevent irreversible degradation of the environment, and it fails to further a compelling state interest”, rendering it unconstitutional, Seeley wrote.

At the trial in June, attorneys for the state argued that Montana’s contributions to the climate crisis are too small to make any meaningful contribution to the climate crisis. But in her ruling, Seeley found that the state’s greenhouse gas emissions are “nationally and globally significant”.

“Montana’s GHG emissions cause and contribute to climate change and plaintiffs’ injuries and reduce the opportunity to alleviate Plaintiffs’ injuries,” she wrote.

She also confirmed the lawsuit’s assertions that fossil fuels cause climate change, that every additional ton of greenhouse gas pollution warms the planet, and that harms to the plaintiffs “will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change”.

“Judge Seeley really understood not only the issues of law, but the very complex scientific issues surrounding the climate crisis as well as clearly the impacts on these particular plaintiffs,” Hornbein said.

Michael Gerrard, the founder of Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, praised Seeley’s order.

“I think this is the strongest decision on climate change ever issued by any court,” he said in an email.

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

The plaintiffs’ lawyers very effectively put on the stand several young Montana residents who testified how they were personally affected negatively by climate change. Putting a human face on this global problem worked well in this courtroom, and may well be followed elsewhere.

Montana succeeded in narrowing the scope of the lawsuit during pre-trial motions. The lawsuit originally challenged the state energy policy, which directs statewide energy production and use, for promoting fossil fuel development, but this year, lawmakers overturned that law and weeks later, Seeley dismissed that part of the case.

The state, which previously vowed to fight the decision if the plaintiffs won, now has 60 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to the Montana supreme court.

The verdict sets a positive tone for the future of youth-led climate lawsuits.

“This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate,” said Olson. “More rulings like this will certainly come.”

Youth-led constitutional climate lawsuits, brought by Our Children’s Trust, are also pending in four other states. One of those cases, brought by Hawaii youth plaintiffs, is set to go to trial in June 2024, attorneys announced last week.

A similar federal lawsuit filed by Our Children’s Trust, 2015’s Juliana v United States, is also pending. This past June, a US district court ruled in favor of the youth plaintiffs, allowing that their claims can be decided at trial in open court, but a trial date has yet to be set.

“The case in Montana is a clear sign that seeking climate justice through the courts is a viable and powerful strategy,” said Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Guardian

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