Historic First U.S. Youth Climate Change Trial Starts in Montana
A historic climate change trial begins today in Helena, Montana, where 16 young people have sued the state for fossil fuel policies — like its continued support of coal and natural gas — that they argue are destroying the environment, making the climate crisis worse and robbing them and other young residents of their futures.
Since 2015, dozens of lawsuits about climate change have been filed by young people all over the U.S., but this is the first in the country to go to trial, reported Montana Public Radio.
The plaintiffs say the Montana government has not kept its state constitutional directive to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations,” The New York Times reported.
“What it’ll make clear, hopefully, is that governments have a constitutional obligation to protect their citizens – especially the youth, the most vulnerable citizens – from the dangers of climate change,” said Nate Bellinger, an attorney representing the plaintiffs with non-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust, as reported by Reuters.
At the time of the lawsuit’s filing in 2020, the plaintiffs were from two to 18 years old. They hope a declaratory judgment by Judge Kathy Seeley will lead state lawmakers to take action and set a precedent for Montana and other states.
“It’s hard to watch the things that I love, like, get depleted slowly, like fishing with my dad,” said 15-year-old Kalispell high school student Badge Busse, as Montana Public Radio reported. “It’s like, my main way to hang out with him and my brother.”
Fishing has been increasingly closed during the hottest parts of the day as temperatures have risen in Montana, limiting fishing opportunities in a state famous for its natural recreation.
Montana’s glaciers have been shrinking and its wildfire season has been getting longer, and the plaintiffs say their state not taking action on climate change poses a threat to their ability to do things like keep up hunting traditions and access clean water, reported The New York Times.
Montana is the fifth largest producer of coal in the nation and the 12th largest producer of oil. Earlier this year, Republican state lawmakers approved a law prohibiting Montana regulators from taking climate impacts into consideration in the assessment of large projects such as factories and power plants.
State officials in the current case have argued that Montana does not contribute a significant amount of greenhouse gases compared to the world in general, denied that Montana’s extreme weather is connected to the hotter temperatures being experienced in the state and disputed the scientific consensus that fossil fuels are causing climate change.
The lawsuit stems from an unsuccessful effort in 2011 to get the state to act on issues related to climate change.
In its efforts to have the suit delayed or dismissed, the state has referred to it as “meritless” and a publicity stunt with the purpose of “shutting down responsible energy development in our state,” Reuters reported.
The state has also argued that Montana’s policies regarding fossil fuels can’t be directly linked to global warming, and that climate change is a worldwide issue that is best dealt with via the political process rather than the courts.
The plaintiffs contend that the state government’s “systemic authorization, permitting, encouragement and facilitation” of the use of fossil fuels is worsening the climate crisis.
The lawsuit also asserts that an energy system dependent on fossil fuels depletes public trust resources protected by the state’s constitution, like lakes, rivers and the fish and wildlife that are relied upon for recreation, fishing and cultural traditions.
There are several other constitutional climate cases that have been filed on behalf of young people by Our Children’s Trust.
“A favorable decision could have a ripple effect around the world, inspiring new cases under multiple theories,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, as reported by Reuters.