On Monday, a group of Montana youth climate activists won a landmark case in a state court. In Held v. Montana, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that the state had violated the youths’ right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels.

The court deemed that a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which prevented the consideration of climate impacts in energy projects, was unconstitutional. According to the court, this unconstitutional provision adversely affected the young plaintiffs personally.

This decision has significant implications for Montana, the youth, democracy, and the climate. Legal experts suggest that this decisive ruling on climate change could inspire the environmental movement and potentially lead to more cases aimed at addressing climate action.

By invalidating the provision, the court provides a rare triumph for climate activists seeking to challenge government policies and industrial practices. The case involved 16 young Montanans, aged 5 to 22, who initiated the nation’s first youth-led climate lawsuit to go to trial.

While the number of climate cases globally has increased, youth-led lawsuits in the United States have faced challenges, with many of them dismissed in recent years. According to a July report from the UN and Columbia University, at least 14 youth-led cases have been dismissed in the United States in recent years.

The Reasons Why the Youth Won

Despite previous dismissals of youth-led climate cases in the United States, experts believe that the Montana youths had an advantage due to the state’s constitution, which guarantees the right to a clean and healthful environment. The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that since the state government has never rejected a fossil fuel permit, this right to a clean environment has been violated.

During June, the youths focused on their constitutional right during five days of emotional testimony. They outlined the injuries they have suffered as a consequence of climate change. For instance, 22-year-old plaintiff Rikki Held shared how extreme weather has harmed her family’s ranch.

Analysts also believe that the youth won the case due to the poor performance of the defense attorneys representing the state government. Rather than challenging the climate science behind the plaintiffs’ case, the defense attorneys asserted that the contested law should be debated and decided upon by the legislature, not the judiciary.

The state’s change in strategy caught many off guard. According to The Washington Post, it’s possible that the defense attorneys agreed with the scientific consensus on climate change and chose not to challenge it.

What Happens Next

The recent Montana case will be appealed to the state Supreme Court, as confirmed by Emily Flower, a spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen. Flower criticized the ruling as “absurd” and emphasized that the people of Montana should not be held responsible for climate change.

The impact of Seeley’s ruling on climate change litigation in other states will likely depend on how the Montana Supreme Court rules in the appeal case.

Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm that represented the Montana plaintiffs, has initiated legal action on behalf of young people across all 50 states. The firm has ongoing cases in four other states. The firm’s case against the Hawaii Department of Transportation is scheduled to be heard in June 2024.

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