In a US First, Youth Climate Activists Sued the State of Montana – and Gained a Precedent-Setting Win
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Young climate activists in Montana gained a landmark legal victory on Monday when a judge ruled that the state’s fossil fuel policy was violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. The victory in the first-of-its-kind trial in the US could set an important legal precedent, though officials say they will appeal the decision and experts say immediate impacts are limited.
District Court judge Kathy Seeley found that the policy Montana uses to evaluate fossil fuel permit requests – which prohibits agencies from looking at greenhouse gas emissions – is unconstitutional. Fossil fuels are a natural resource in limited supply, and have a massive environmental footprint. One estimate by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says fossil fuels account for 75% of global carbon emissions. A study in 2019, meanwhile, found that 20 fossil fuel companies generate a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
This marks the first time a US court has ruled against a government for violating a climate-based constitutional right. It establishes legal protection against harm caused by the climate crisis, and potentially sets a foundation for future lawsuits nationwide as well as internationally.
“To be sure, it is a state court, not a federal court, and the ruling is based on a state constitution and not the US Constitution,” Harvard Law School professor Richard Lazarus told the Associated Press. “But it is still clearly a major, pathbreaking win for climate plaintiffs.”
A three-year-long climate lawsuit
The end of the two-week trial is the latest development in a three-year legal process. The lawsuit was brought forth by 16 plaintiffs aged 5 to 22, who have all been physically and mentally affected by climate change events, including wildfires, heatwaves and droughts. Native Americans who were testifying for the plaintiffs said climate change affects their ceremonies and traditional food sources.
“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,” said Julia Olson, the chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which has brought similar suits in all 50 states.
Montana argued that its emissions are insignificant, and that even if it were to completely stop emitting carbon, it would have little impact. The state also brought climate deniers and free-market economists to convince the court that permitting and regulating fossil fuel use wasn’t its responsibility. Seeley rejected these claims in her 103-page ruling, writing: “Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury to the youth plaintiffs.”
She added: “Every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries. Plaintiffs’ injuries will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change.”
However, Montana state officials said they will see to overturn the decision on appeal, with a spokesperson for the state attorney general calling the ruling “absurd”: “Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate. The same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. It should have been here as well.”
If the ruling stands, though, it’s up to the state to figure out how to bring its policies into compliance, which makes prompt changes an improbability in a Republican-dominated fossil-fuel-friendly state. Only a few US states – including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York – have constitutions with similar environmental protections.
But Claire Vlases, a 20-year-old plaintiff in the lawsuit, expects lawmakers to respect the state’s constitution and abide by the court’s decision. “I think a lot of young people feel really helpless, especially when it comes to the future,” she said. “Hopefully, this is one for history.”
Climate litigation around the world
Seeley’s ruling adds to a handful of similar decisions globally that have established governments’ duty to protect citizens’ environmental rights. In December 2019, the Supreme Court in The Hague ruled in favour of climate activists asking for the Dutch government to cut emissions by at least 25% by the end of 2020 (from a 1990 benchmark). It came a day after Swiss climate activists had gained enough signatures to force a referendum on setting climate-mitigating goals in the constitution.
“We are heard!” said Kian Tanner, one of the youth plaintiffs in the Montana climate lawsuit. “Frankly, the elation and joy in my heart is overwhelming in the best way. We set the precedent not only for the United States, but for the world.”