Montana Youth Win a Momentous Lawsuit on Climate Change

Michael Reinemer
Youth plaintiffs - credit Thom Bridge, Helena Independent Record

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Sackett v EPA decision spells bad news for wetlands and water quality nationwide, a ray of hope for conservation burst out of a Montana court on August 14. The spotlight in that case centered on 16 young people and the dangers of climate change.

In Held v Montana, Montana district court Judge Kathy Seely ruled in favor of the youths who had filed a complaint challenging the state’s fossil fuel-focused energy policy. Specifically, the lawsuit challenged a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) that forbids consideration of the role of climate change or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the state’s review of environmental impacts (a provision called the MEPA limitation).

The lawsuit argued that policies in MEPA violate Montana’s constitution, which states in part, the “state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” That section was added to the state’s constitution in 1972.

Being part of this case and working with so many incredible people looking out for us gives me a lot of hope for the future even when there's a long way yet to go.-Rikki Held

A number of the youth and expert witnesses for the plaintiffs testified during the case, which was heard in June. The lead plaintiff, Rikki Held, was 18 when the suit was filed. She grew up on a ranch near Broadus, Montana, and has been interviewed several times on “Our Montana,” a public access TV program hosted by a Held family friend and Izaak Walton League member Mike Penfold.

A Breakthrough Case

This lawsuit was not the first attempt to tackle climate change by focusing on its impact on children. The nonprofit organization called Our Children’s Trust, which represented the Montana plaintiffs in court, has filed several related lawsuits. And across the U.S., more than a dozen similar lawsuits have been dismissed.

But the judge in Held found that the Montana youth had standing (met the legal threshold to file the complaint) and that the state’s energy policies have had a role in harming the youth.

Interviewed on NPR’s “Living On Earth,” Pat Parenteau, emeritus professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School, called the case a breakthrough and “an incredibly strong opinion.” It was “the first time a court in the United States has ruled that there is a constitutional right to a safe climate, in effect.”

Judge Seely’s 103-page opinion describes harms— physical, economic or emotional—of Montana’s energy policy on each of the 16 plaintiffs, along with the environmental harms such as extreme weather, wildfires and water variability.

The ruling in the case includes a number of stark points:

Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.-Judge Kathy Seely

“Montana’s GHG emissions have been proven to be fairly traceable to the MEPA Limitation.”

“Montana’s GHG 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 Plaintiffs.”

“This judgement will influence the State’s conduct by invalidating statutes prohibiting analysis and remedies based on GHG emissions and climate impacts, alleviating Youth Plaintiffs’ injuries and preventing further injury.”

“Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.”

The defendants (Montana’s governor, Department of Environmental Quality and several other state agencies) are appealing the ruling and the appeal will be heard in the Montana Supreme Court, which has previously recognized the right to a healthy environment.

Similar legal challenges related to youth and climate, led by Our Childrens’ Trust, are pending in Oregon, Virginia and Hawaii.

Rikki Held On her family’s ranch near Broadus, Montana, Rikki Held is one of 16 youth plaintiffs in Held v Montana

Meet Rikki Held

One of the 16 youth plaintiffs, whose name appears in the case, is Rikki Held. She was 18 when the case was filed in 2020. Now 22, she recently graduated from Colorado College with a degree in Environmental Science and has signed up with the Peace Corps to teach science in Kenya. Longer term, she hopes to earn a Ph.D. in science and do research.

Held grew up near the Powder River in Montana and first became interested in science as a teenager by shadowing U.S. Geological Survey researchers who were studying the hydrology of the river.

In a conversation with Outdoor America, Held described her experience in the Montana case as “amazing.” She praised the hard work of the legal team and said she got to know some of the other plaintiffs during June trial. ”I think the world of them. These are strong, inspirational people…so thoughtful and serious about this issue and the well-being of our state.”

She said the judgement in the case was broad and stronger than she had expected.

“Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change have to be considered before issuing new fossil fuel permits, which evidence has already shown harms Montanans, especially youth. We hope this decision and the testimony presented by us young people and our experts will encourage Montana to transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy, which is less expensive and would save other social costs such as people’s health or having to rebuild communities from flooding and wildfires.”

In Held v Montana, preventing harms from climate change was elevated to a constitutional issue. But the case also underscores—in headlines around the world—this generation’s grave concerns and the disproportionate impact of climate change on our youngest, who will endure longer and more pronounced harms.

“It’s pretty terrifying, especially when we have control over human-caused climate change, and have known about it for so long,” Held says. “All we can do is keep taking steps forward. Being part of this case and working with so many incredible people looking out for us gives me a lot of hope for the future even when there’s a long way yet to go.”

Not one to seek the spotlight, what Held really wants people to concentrate on is the science.

“We already know this is harming people and we have the technology and opportunity to make different choices. As stressed in court, 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 is what is needed for a stable climate system. Currently, we’re at 419 ppm. We need to focus on bringing that back down and take responsibility for our actions, even as individual states, because our basic human rights such as to a clean and healthful environment are already being violated, and every increment of global warming will only worsen the harms to people and our ecosystems.”

Top photo: Youth plaintiffs in the successful climate change lawsuit in Montana. Credit: Thom Bridge, Helena Independent Record.

This article was excerpted from Outdoor America 2023 issue #3. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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