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Over the first eight months of 2023, the catastrophic impacts from climate change have become tangible for millions of people. From massive Canadian wildfires to 100-degree ocean waters off Florida, to a rare hurricane hitting California, the signs of an overheating globe are everywhere. Amid such devastation, youth climate activists in Montana have scored a precedent-setting victory: for the first time in U.S. history a court has ruled young people have the right to a livable climate.
In Held v. State of Montana, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled the state must safeguard 16 young plaintiffs’ right to a “clean and healthful environment,” which is protected by Montana’s constitution. Seeley also clarified that the climate crisis threatens this fundamental right. The ruling overturned Montana House Bill 971, legislation passed earlier this year to prohibit state agencies from considering climate impacts from fossil fuel or other development projects.
“We hope this victory helps people move past their feelings of powerlessness and gloom and doom surrounding climate change,” says Winona Bateman, executive director of Families for a Livable Climate, a Missoula, MT-based nonprofit that organized to support the Held plaintiffs at trial. “None of us can solve the climate crisis alone, but together we can make a difference.”
It is notable that this first-of-its-kind ruling by a court in the United States came from a major fossil fuel producing region. Montana is the country’s fourth-largest coal mining state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and is also a significant producer of oil and natural gas. Montana Republicans, who hold supermajorities in the legislature, have tried to thwart climate action with bills like HB 971. However, there was a time in history when the state was at the forefront of passing groundbreaking environmental policy.
Montana’s constitution, adopted in 1972, states, “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Environmental protection was a far more bipartisan issue in the 1970s than it is today. However, Held shows this constitutional clause can still be used to hold lawmakers accountable.
“Everyone should have the right to a healthy environment,” says Bateman. “Our goal is to support the youth plaintiffs defending that constitutionally protected right.”
The Held plaintiffs, who ranged from two to 18 years old when their case was originally filed in 2020, include fly fishers, a competitive Nordic skier, a resident of a ranching community home to 450 people, and members of the Crow Nation and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The court’s findings report one plaintiff describing climate anxiety as feeling “like an elephant sitting on her chest.”
The youths’ case was initially set to be decided after a two-week trial, but the office of State Attorney General Austin Knudson, representing the defendants, rested its case after a single day and failed to call on many of its witnesses. “Montana’s far-right attorney general proved with his absolutely abysmal performance that there is no longer any credible defense for those who support the fossil fuel industry,” says Jeff Smith, co-chair of the grassroots climate organization 350-Montana.
In contrast, the youth and their lawyers from the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust took full advantage of the week allotted for their testimony, calling climate scientists and public health experts as witnesses. The court’s over 100 pages of findings largely sided with the plaintiffs, concluding, “Science is unequivocal that dangerous impacts to the climate are occurring due to human activities, primarily from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels,” that the plaintiffs are being harmed by climate change, and that the state’s role in causing the crisis is significant. Smith calls it “a lights out, clear description of the link between profligate fossil fuel extraction, processing, and combustion and the threats we face now that our natural world is collapsing.”
The state is expected to appeal Judge Seeley’s ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. “We know it’s not over,” Bateman said. “But for now, we’re enjoying celebrating.” Meanwhile, implications from the precedent-setting verdict are rippling far beyond Montana’s borders.
Montana is one of several U.S. states—also including Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Illinois — with environmental rights enshrined in their constitutions. New York added a “green amendment” to its bill of rights through a 2021 ballot initiative, and similar amendments have gained traction in Delaware and New Jersey. The Held verdict, which has gained widespread national media attention, will no doubt be on observers’ minds during future climate cases that test these protections in court.
What is harder to quantify is how Held is giving new hope to grassroots climate activists throughout the country. The youth-led Sunrise Movement called the verdict, “a victory that echoes across the world, as a testament to the undeniable power young people hold.”
In Montana, the case has managed to cut through the polarized politics of our time. “There are a lot of divisive topics in our state, fueled by big money interests,” Bateman says. “But most Montanans agree we should have a right to a clean and healthful environment and that this right should be protected. That’s something we should all be able to support.”
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Nick Engelfried is a writer, environmental educator, and activist. He currently lives in Washington State.