A group of 16 young plaintiffs, aged between 5 and 22, have won a historic legal victory against the state of Montana for violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. The judge ruled that the state’s laws that prohibited the consideration of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions when permitting fossil fuel activities were unconstitutional and ordered the state to adopt science-based climate measures.
A first-of-its-kind ruling
The case, Held v. State of Montana, was filed in 2019 by the youth plaintiffs with the help of Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit law firm that advocates for climate justice. The plaintiffs argued that the state had failed to protect their rights to life, liberty, dignity, and a clean environment by allowing and promoting fossil fuel development without regard for its impact on the climate.
The trial took place in June 2021, where the plaintiffs and expert witnesses testified about the harms they had suffered or would suffer from climate change, such as droughts, wildfires, floods, heatwaves, and health problems. They also presented scientific evidence that showed that Montana was one of the largest per capita greenhouse gas emitters in the nation and that its emissions were contributing to global warming.
On August 14, 2023, Judge Kathy Seeley of the First Judicial District Court of Montana issued her ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. She declared that the state had violated Article II, Section 3 of Montana’s Constitution, which states: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment.”
She also found that the state’s laws that prevented its agencies from considering climate change or greenhouse gas emissions when issuing permits for fossil fuel activities were unconstitutional. She ordered the state to adopt science-based measures to reduce its emissions and protect the environment from further harm.
This was the first time in U.S. history that a court had connected the government’s fossil fuel promotion with harm to youth from climate change neglect. It was also the first time that a court had recognized the constitutional right to a clean environment as a fundamental right that cannot be infringed by the state.
A victory for the youth climate movement
The plaintiffs and their supporters celebrated the ruling as a major victory for the youth climate movement and a precedent for future cases. They said that the ruling showed that young people have a voice and a power to make a difference in the fight against climate change.
“I’m so speechless right now,” said Eva, one of the plaintiffs. “I’m really just excited and elated and thrilled. I cannot believe the ruling. I’m just so relieved.”
“This is a huge win for us,” said Rikki, another plaintiff. “We’ve been fighting for this for so long and we finally got justice. We hope this inspires other young people to stand up for their rights and their future.”
“This is a historic moment for Montana and for America,” said Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust. “This ruling affirms that young people have constitutional rights to a stable climate system and a healthy environment. It also sends a clear message to the state that it must take immediate action to address the climate crisis and protect its citizens.”
A challenge for the fossil fuel industry
The ruling was also a significant blow to the fossil fuel industry, which has been dominating energy production in Montana and other western states for decades. The industry has been facing increasing pressure from environmental groups, investors, and regulators to reduce its emissions and transition to cleaner sources of energy.
The ruling could have implications for other pending or potential lawsuits against fossil fuel projects in Montana and elsewhere. It could also influence public opinion and policy decisions regarding fossil fuel development and climate action.
The state of Montana has not yet announced whether it will appeal the ruling or comply with it. The fossil fuel industry has not commented on the ruling either.
However, some experts have warned that the ruling could face legal challenges from the state or the industry on various grounds, such as federal preemption, separation of powers, or lack of standing. They have also cautioned that implementing the ruling could be difficult and costly for the state, especially given its reliance on fossil fuel revenues.