Youth Take On Montana: You're Destroying Our Future

Environmentalists say state broke vow to provide a healthy environment through embrace of fossil fuels
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 13, 2023 10:45 AM CDT
Young Environmentalists Take Montana to Trial
Lead plaintiff Rikki Held testifies during a hearing in the climate change lawsuit Held vs. Montana at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena, Montana, on Monday.   (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

Sixteen young people say the state of Montana is destroying their future through its embrace of fossil fuels as part of a landmark climate trial now underway in Helena. The plaintiffs, ages 5 to 22, argue the state is violating its own constitution, which has declared since 1972 that "the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." The plaintiffs say the policies of the fifth-largest coal-producing state and the 12th-largest oil-producing state have instead brought droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and floods, per the New York Times. A 2021 state climate assessment found Montana has been warming faster than the US as a whole since 1895 while facing severe climate-related weather events, per Nature.

During the state's opening statement Monday, Michael Russell, an assistant attorney general, said, "Montana's emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference." "I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part of that," countered 22-year-old Rikki Held, per the Times. "You can't just blow it off and do nothing about it." Judge Kathy Seeley has said it's not in her power to dictate the state's energy and climate policies. However, she can rule that the state's support for the fossil fuel industry is unconstitutional, a move that would put pressure on the government to take action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state previously repealed "a 30-year-old energy policy that prioritized the development of the state's fossil-fuel industry" in an attempt to keep the case from going to trial, per Nature. But other policies will be put under the spotlight. As the Times reports, environmental advocates hope Seeley will reverse a new Republican-approved law that blocks state regulators from considering the impacts of climate change ahead of large building projects. The case, Held v. Montana, is backed by Our Children's Trust, a legal nonprofit that's also behind Juliana v. United States, a similar case focusing on the nationwide impacts of climate change. Filed in Oregon in 2015 on behalf of 21 young people, that case was propelled to trial earlier this month. Held v. Montana "comes first, however, and could be a bellwether for that case," Nature reports. (More climate change stories.)

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