Montana youths win unprecedented victory in climate change lawsuit

In June, 16 young Montanans sat in Judge Kathy Seeley’s courtroom in the western state’s First Judicial District Court for the first-ever constitutional climate trial in the U.S.

After three years of waiting, the youth finally had the chance to explain to the judge, and the world, how Montana’s government is violating their constitutional rights, including their fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment. 

Today, Judge Seeley ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, writing, “The [Montana Environmental Policy Act] Limitation is unconstitutionally contributing to the depletion and degradation of Montana’s environment and natural resources and contributing to Plaintiffs’ injuries. The MEPA Limitation deprives Plaintiffs of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.”

Such a ruling in this landmark case shows that Montana’s government is indeed infringing on the constitutional rights of its citizens and causing direct harm through the proliferation of fossil fuels and refusal to consider climate impacts.  

Judge Seely wrote: “In terms of per capita emissions, Montana’s consumption of fossil fuels is disproportionately large and only five states have greater per capita emissions. Montana is a major emitter of [greenhouse gas] emissions in the world in absolute terms, in per person terms, and historically.” 

She continued: “The current barriers to implementing renewable energy systems are not technical or economic, but social and political. Such barriers primarily result from government policies that slow down and inhibit the transition to renewables, and laws that allow utilization of fossil fuel development and preclude a faster transition to a clean, renewable energy system.” 

Western Environmental Law Center attorneys Barbara Chillcott and Melissa Hornbein, along with Roger Sullivan of McGarvey Law, worked as local counsel on the case developed by Our Children’s Trust.

“It is incredibly gratifying to see a Montana court recognize the effects the state’s harmful energy policies have on young people and all Montanans,” said Chillcott. “Judge Seeley’s ruling underscores the reality that Montana’s government is actively working to undermine our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.” 

“Despite the state’s attempts to avoid any responsibility, the court’s decision affirms that the state has the ‘discretion to deny permits for fossil fuel activities that would result in unconstitutional levels of greenhouse gas emissions, unconstitutional degradation and depletion of Montana’s environment and natural resources, or infringement of the constitutional rights of Montanans and Youth Plaintiffs’,” said Chillcott. “This decision sets important precedent for other constitutional climate cases in the U.S., and, most importantly, gives these youth plaintiffs some hope for a better future.” 

“Judge Seeley’s decision comes at a time when we’re seeing the impacts of climate change accelerate– from low streamflows and lake levels to unprecedented heat waves, floods, and wildfires,” said Hornbein. “These are the climate realities the youth plaintiffs and expert witnesses told us about on the stand, while the state disclaimed any responsibility and dismissed them.” 

“We’re relieved that the court recognized that these youth plaintiffs are already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis, as well as the dangers threatening their future if the state doesn’t take meaningful action to address it,” said Hornbein. “We’re also delighted that Judge Seeley recognized Montana’s significant role as an emitter on the global stage, as well as its ability—constrained only by a resistant government—to rectify its disproportionate contribution to the climate crisis.” 

The ruling sets an important precedent in the nascent field of U.S. constitutional climate cases.

A similar case brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the U.S. government in 2015, Juliana v. United States, is on the precipice of proceeding to trial after eight years of legal challenges.

On June 1, 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken, in Oregon, granted the plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint, putting their case back on track to trial where the evidence of their government’s conduct that is causing the climate crisis and violating their constitutional rights will be heard in open court.

A victory would mean that U.S. climate and energy policy—whether executive or legislative in nature and regardless of which political party controls the government—would need to protect the rights of our nation’s children by ending the physical and mental harm they have experienced due to global warming.

In Hawai’i, where catastrophic, climate-fueled wildfires have claimed at least 96 lives in recent days, the youth plaintiffs in Navahine F. v. Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation are heading to trial next summer. 

Environmentalists expect this case to come before the Montana Supreme Court, where they look forward to the opportunity for Montana’s highest court to affirm Judge Seeley’s decision, which was grounded in the overwhelming evidence we presented at trial through the youth plaintiffs and our world-renowned experts. 

An overwhelming majority of scientists, peer-reviewed studies and government agencies have shown that the planet is warming due in large part to human activity.

Burning fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and gasoline has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, preventing heat from escaping into space and driving global temperatures up to record highs.

Political duplicity and weakness within the environmental movement have made New Jersey’s drive toward clean energy painfully slow.

Advocates said Gov. Phil Murphy’s master plan for New Jersey’s energy future doesn’t go far enough to sever the state from projects promoting fossil fuels, but his re-election campaign was endorsed by the Sierra Club New Jersey Chapter, Clean Water Action (CWA), Environment New Jersey, New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Several of those same environmental groups criticized Murphy for raiding the state’s Clean Energy Fund to support New Jersey Transit, using the agency’s capital budget to fund its operating budget and giving a tax break to wealthy corporations by ending the corporate-business tax surcharge while many working-class families are struggling to get by.

New Jersey’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by up to 19 percent from six major fossil fuel expansion projects approved during Murphy’s first term, and pending projects have the potential to increase them by an additional 38 percent if seven other approved blueprints are completed during the Wall Street millionaire’s second term.

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