First youth climate change court case begins in Montana

    19 Jun 2023

    The first trial in several US climate change cases brought by youths began on Monday in Montana, where 16 young people are seeking to hold the state accountable for fossil fuel-friendly policies they claim exacerbate global warming and threaten their futures.

    Roger Sullivan, a lawyer for the young plaintiffs, painted a sweeping picture of the costs and consequences of Montana’s energy policies, which he said violate a state constitutional provision that guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment”, during his opening statement at the two-week bench trial in state court.

    The plaintiffs, who were between the ages of two and 18 when they filed their lawsuit in 2020, want Judge Kathy Seeley in Helena to declare the state’s policies violate their rights.

    They hope that would set an important precedent and encourage politicians in the state capital to take greater action to fight climate change, their lawyers said.

    Mr Sullivan said the state’s ongoing permission of polluting fuels such as coal and gas is contributing to a global crisis that is shrinking the state’s glaciers and making its rivers run dry, and argued that the young people he represents are suffering psychological, medical and economic damages as a result.

    Lead plaintiff 22-year-old Rikki Held gave evidence that climate change has already led to severe conditions on her family’s ranch in eastern Montana. She said droughts have left “skinny cows and dead cattle” and said wildfires have made ash fall from the sky.

    But she said she is optimistic things can turn around: “We have the technology and knowledge, we just need empathy and willingness to do the right thing.”

    Lawyer Mark Stermitz, representing the state, said the trial will include “lots of emotions” and “lots of assumptions, accusations, speculation and prognostication and, notably, fear” about the future.

    But he said the reality is “far more boring” than what the youth have claimed.

    Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are declining, he said. And the youth are not challenging policies that would, if invalidated, meaningfully change the state’s impact on the climate, Mr Stermitz said.

    He said that is because the primary policy targeted in the lawsuit, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, is a “procedural” law that requires environmental reviews for big projects but does not mandate specific outcomes.

    Lawyers for the state had repeatedly attempted to have the case tossed before trial, arguing climate change is an issue best addressed through the political process, not in courtrooms.

    The plaintiffs claim the state’s “systemic authorisation, permitting, encouragement and facilitation” of fossil fuels exacerbates the climate crisis, despite what they call an affirmative duty under a 1972 amendment to the Montana Constitution to protect and improve the environment for past and future generations.

    The case is among several constitutional climate cases on behalf of youth plaintiffs across the US, and is the first of those to head to trial.


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