In a significant verdict, a Montana judge sided with 16 young activists between the ages of 5 and 22 on the grounds that the state had violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” as guaranteed by the state constitution.
The plaintiffs’ case targeted a 2011 state law that made it illegal for environmental reviews within companies to consider the potential climate impact when deciding on new projects, like building a new power plant. The lawsuit cited a 50-year-old clause in the Montana state constitution that guaranteed that the “state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
The Case Against Climate Change
Speaking to the BBC, Rikki Held, one of the plaintiffs, said that the state is “permitting and promoting a fossil-fuel based energy system, and that’s contributing to climate change emissions. It goes against some of our basic rights that are written in our constitution," she added.
At age 22, Rikki, who grew up on a huge range in Broadus, Montana, saw the impact climate change had on her state first-hand, with worsening flash flooding, droughts, and wildfires, which have significantly altered crops and livestock on her family’s ranch. Speaking to the BBC this summer, she expressed how she felt as though she had no choice but to get involved with climate advocacy groups Our Children’s Trust to make a difference. An Oregan based non-profit, Our Children's Trust has sued all 50 state governments on behalf of youth in the United States in order to make a difference to curb global warming.
On Monday, District Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favour of Held and her fellow climate activists, finding that Montana’s approval process for fossil fuel permits is unconstitutional, as it does not take into consideration the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. “Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment,” wrote Judge Seeley on Monday. “Plaintiffs have proven that as children and youth, they are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts," she added.
The lead attorney for Our Children’s Trust, Julia Olson, called it a “huge win for Montana, for you, for democracy, and for our climate." She expressed her hope that such change would take place all over the country, and the world- "More rulings like this will certainly come."
Reaction From Coal Miners
Not everyone in Montana is happy with the outcome, with the lawsuit dividing Montana citizens. In the US alone, Montana holds 30% of the country’s recoverable coal reserves and is the fourth-most coal producing state in the United States. As a result, jobs in the coal industry are essential to the state’s economy, and as such, the removal of such jobs can cripple it.
Joe Navasio has worked as a miner for 40 years in the small mining town of Colstrip, just about 70 miles away from Rikki Held’s family farm. On Colstrip, he said that “this whole town was designed for one thing. To provide the north west with electricity. If you want to turn your lights on, you need us,” he stated. According to him, climate change is a global issue and cannot be solved in Montana, and he believes that the climate case in Montana is another example of environmental groups pushing their agenda with no solutions.
Speaking to the BBC about the court case, he said “I haven’t seen one solution. What about those poor kids in Colstrip? What about them?” he questioned. “What about their parent’s jobs? I don’t see anybody running to our rescue,” he added.
The state of Montana is currently appealing the ruling, with the spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Emily Flower, called the ruling “absurd.” The state of Montana is arguing that even if Montana stopped the production at coal mines like those in coal strip, they would do little to help prevent climate change, citing the plaintiffs’ evidence that CO2 emissions from Montana have little impact on global climate. In the June trial, the 16 plaintiffs also submitted evidence that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to hotter temperatures and more wildfires, which negatively impact their physical and mental health.
If the judge’s decision is upheld after the state appeal, then Montana’s state legislature will have to rework and redraft their environmental review policies to ensure climate change is taken into consideration when planning future projects.