Overview of the lawsuit
In a historic lawsuit that made headlines around the United States and internationally, sixteen Montana youth sued the state, arguing that the state government’s pro-fossil fuel policies contributed to climate change and therefore violated their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment. The plaintiffs in Montana v. Held, ages five to twenty-two, participated in the first-of-its-kind constitutional environmental rights case in the U.S., and the suit detailed their personal experiences of the worsening climate on their health and well-being. The identified factors such as “rising temperatures, wildfires, glacial melt, and worsening droughts” affected “their physical and mental health, livelihoods, and futures.” The young activists emphasised key language in the Montana Constitution that guarantees residents “the right to a clean and healthful environment,” and stipulates that the state and individuals are responsible for maintaining and improving the environment “for present and future generations.” They argue that Montana's support for the fossil fuel industry, as the fifth largest coal-producing state and the 12th largest oil-producing state in the country, has robbed them of a healthy environment.
Additionally, a 2011 amendment to the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) exempts government projects from having to assess their impact on climate change when reviewing fossil fuel projects and issuing permits. In the case, the youth plaintiffs argued that this specific provision was unconstitutional as fossil fuels are largely responsible for driving climate change and creating an unhealthy environment. In May 2023, Montana lawmakers attempted to change the provision again to prevent the consideration of greenhouse gas emissions in environmental reviews for new energy projects. Despite concerted efforts to derail the lawsuit, the legislative action was terminated by a district court judge.
What is the legal precedent for the lawsuit?
While Held v. Montana may be the first constitutional climate case, climate law precedents have been set in different contexts. The argument for a safe climate as a human or constitutional right has been successfully used in U.S. courts. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] (2007) concluded that state property damage from rising sea levels could be attributed to the EPA’s decision not to regulate vehicle emissions. Additionally, in March 2023, the Supreme Court of Hawaii recognised the human right to a stable and healthy climate in a ruling against a biomass power plant developer. In both cases, courts have dismissed the ‘drop in a bucket’ defence, in which governments deny responsibility for contributing to climate change.
Our Children’s Trust
Our Children’s Trust is a non-profit advocacy group that filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. The group has sued state governments on behalf of youth in all 50 states and is behind Juliana v. United States, another closely watched youth-led climate case in Oregon. Our Children’s Trust began building its case in Montana in 2011, following a Montana Supreme Court decision that encouraged the group to try its case in the lower courts. Over the next decade, the group worked with the environmental community to identify youth plaintiffs. Julia Olson, founder of the Our Children’s Trust, stated, “We’re really trying to bring the youth generation to the courts, and do so through a human rights lens.”
The plaintiffs’ case
During the trial, the plaintiffs’ case was carefully shaped through the stories and testimony of twenty-one witnesses–eight experts and fourteen youth plaintiffs. Climate scientists, energy analysts, public health officials and other experts offered testimonials on the impacts of climate change on people, wildlife, and ecosystems across Montana and beyond. During the trial, each expert reminded the court that the detrimental effects related to climate change could be prevented by taking swift and necessary action. The plaintiffs had to prove a causal connection between the state’s actions to spur the climate crisis and the resulting local effects and their injuries. They also had to demonstrate that a court decision is capable of fixing the injuries. The plaintiffs argued that a connection exists between the state’s pro-fossil fuel actions and their injuries, and that the Montana state government has a constitutional duty to protect its residents against climate destablisation. Climate destabilisation, they allege, is actively encouraged by the 2011 Montana Environmental Policy Act; an unconstitutional law that explicitly forbids state officials from considering greenhouse gas emissions or other climate impacts when permitting projects. Many of the witnesses argued that every ton of greenhouse gas emissions contributes to the climate crisis, as stated in the 2021 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Therefore, a reduction in Montana’s emissions would make a difference within the state and beyond.
The state’s defence
The state publicly denied any wrongdoing alleged in the lawsuit. Emily Flower, the spokeswoman for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, aggressively defended the state when describing the suit as “a publicity stunt staged by an out-of-state organisation that has exploited well-intentioned children and forced Montana taxpayers to foot the bill.” The state's central defence argued that its emissions are inconsequential and therefore no ‘injuries’ can be traced back to their actions. Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell argued that “Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference.” The state also questioned the merit of the plaintiffs’ legal claims as they believed the plaintiffs were resorting to "emotional appeals" about the supposed dangers of climate change.
The historic decision
The 103-page decision was announced on August 14, two months after the trial start date. In her ruling, Judge Kathy Seeley of Montana District Court stated that Montanans “have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.” She found that the state’s emissions “have been proven to be a substantial factor” in affecting the climate. Furthermore, Judge Seeley ruled that the adjustment to MEPA, which forbade the consideration of climate impact when approving fossil fuel projects, violates the right to a safe environment enshrined in Montana’s constitution and is therefore unconstitutional. The ruling stated that “the MEPA Limitation violates [the] Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is facially unconstitutional.”
Moving forward, this historic ruling will impact Montana’s policies by “invalidating statutes prohibiting analysis and remedies based on GHG emissions and climate impacts.” Therefore, it is evident that the 2011 and 2023 laws will no longer be implemented. Although the Montana Attorney General’s office has stated its intentions to appeal the decision, the ruling still marks a major victory in the expanding fight for environmental rights.
What does this decision mean for future environmental rights decisions?
This ruling will most definitely serve as a powerful legal precedent in the U.S. Legal scholars such as Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Litigation at Columbia University, anticipate similar wins for climate cases around the country. He affirmed that “These are important factual findings, and other courts in the U.S. and around the world will look to this decision.” Held v. Montana will most definitely spark affirmative climate rights legal battles in more than fifteen other states with similar constitutional provisions, as the clear constitutional language established in this ruling can now be used as legal precedent. Additionally, Our Children’s Trust has similar cases in Utah, Virginia, Hawaii and Alaska. They also have a pending federal case, Juliana v. United States, a landmark lawsuit against the federal government in which youth plaintiffs from across the U.S. claim that federal policies and actions violated the U.S. Constitution’s due process protections. The legal precedent established from Held v. Montana will certainly be utilised in the plaintiffs’ arguments and in environmental rights cases to come.