Montana Judge Rules in Favor of Young Activists in Landmark Climate Lawsuit
A Montana judge has ruled in favor of 16 young environmental activists who sued the state, claiming that its pro-fossil fuel policies violated their right to a “clean and healthy environment” guaranteed by the state constitution. The plaintiffs, aged between five and 22, argued that the state’s support for fossil fuels has contributed to climate change, leading to devastating effects on the environment and their communities. This case is the first of its kind to go to trial.
Lead plaintiff, 22-year-old Rikki Held, spoke of her experiences witnessing the impacts of climate change on her family’s ranch. Held, who grew up on a 7,000-acre ranch in Broadus, Montana, said that she initially believed climate change was a distant issue that only affected polar bears and glaciers. However, extreme weather events such as flash floods, droughts, and wildfires have increasingly affected their crops and livestock.
The lawsuit challenged a 2011 state law that prohibited considering climate impact when approving new projects, such as the construction of power plants. Judge Kathy Seeley, in her ruling, declared that Montana’s fossil fuel permit approval process is unconstitutional as it fails to address greenhouse gas emissions. She emphasized that children and youth are disproportionately affected by fossil fuel pollution and its climate-related consequences.
The plaintiffs were supported by Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit organization based in Oregon that has filed similar climate-related lawsuits in all 50 US states. Julia Olson, a senior attorney for the organization, called the ruling a “huge victory” for Montana, youth, and climate action. Similar lawsuits are expected to be heard in other states and countries, including Hawaii, Utah, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Colombia, and Uganda.
However, the case has also exposed divisions within Montana, where coal mining plays a significant role in the economy. Montana holds 30% of the country’s mineable coal reserves and is the fourth-largest coal producer in the US. The suit has caused tension among those who rely on the coal industry for their livelihood. Colstrip, a small mining town in Montana, heavily depends on coal mining and electricity production.
Joe Navasio, a former coal miner from Colstrip, voiced concerns about the impact the case might have on the community. He argued that Colstrip was built to support coal production and that without it, the town would suffer greatly. Navasio believes that the issue of climate change should be addressed globally rather than placing blame on Montana’s coal industry.
The state plans to appeal the judge’s decision, viewing the ruling as “absurd.” The state argues that even if they stopped carbon emissions entirely, climate change would not be significantly mitigated unless all states and countries take action. If the ruling is upheld, Montana will have to reformulate its environmental analysis policies to consider climate change in future energy projects.