Young environmental activists prevail in first-of-its-kind climate change trial in Montana

Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 20 in Helena, Mont., for the final day of the trial. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

HELENA, Mont. — Young environmental activists scored what may be a groundbreaking legal victory Monday when a Montana judge said state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by allowing fossil fuel development.

The ruling in this first-of-its- kind trial in the U.S. adds to a small number of legal decisions around the world that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change.


If it stands, the ruling could set an important legal precedent, though experts said its immediate impacts will be limited and state officials pledged to seek to overturn the decision on appeal.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found the policy the state uses in evaluating requests for fossil fuel permits — which does not allow agencies to evaluate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions — is unconstitutional.

Judge Seeley wrote in the ruling that “Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury” to the youth.

Law professor David Dana at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law said the ruling was a “remarkable win” for the young climate activists and predicted it will be used as a guidepost for attorneys bringing similar suits in other states.

However, it’s up to the Montana Legislature to determine how to bring the state’s policies into compliance. That leaves slim chances for immediate change in a fossil fuel-friendly state where Republicans dominate the statehouse.

Montana is one of the few states that has environmental protections written into its constitution.

“The ruling really provides nothing beyond emotional support for the many cases seeking to establish a public trust right, human right or a federal constitutional right” to a healthy environment, said James Huffman, dean emeritus at Lewis &Clark Law School in Portland.

State officials tried to derail the case and prevent it from going to trial through numerous motions to dismiss the lawsuit. Seeley rejected those attempts.

Julia Olson, an attorney representing the youth, released a statement calling the ruling a win “for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate.”

“As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos,” said Olson, the executive director of Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon environmental group that has filed lawsuits over climate change in every state since 2011.

Emily Flower, spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, decried the ruling as “absurd” and said the office planned to appeal.

She criticized Seeley for allowing the plaintiffs to put on what Flower called a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt.”

“Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate,” Flower said in an email. “Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. It should have been here as well, but they found an ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward and earn herself a spot in their next documentary.”

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