Youth environmentalists bring Montana climate case to trial after 12 years

A case involving 16 young plaintiffs and their lawyers is set to go to trial in Montana where the question of whether a healthy and sustainable climate is protected by state law will be addressed.

The outcome of the trial could set a significant legal precedent as it is the first of its kind in the US, with legal experts worldwide paying close attention to see if it establishes a government responsibility to safeguard citizens from climate change.

The Republican-controlled Legislature of Montana passed laws that favored the fossil fuel industry by curbing attempts made by local governments to promote renewable energy, and by increasing the expenses required to challenge oil, gas and coal projects in court. A lawsuit has been filed by an environmental firm which includes plaintiffs aged between 5 to 22 years old, who aim to demonstrate how climate change affects young people in the present moment and will continue to affect them in the future.

The witnesses will provide accounts of how wildfires, heatwaves, and droughts have impacted the physical and mental well-being of residents.

Although the age of the plaintiffs is unrelated to the legal matters at hand, experts believe that this case may not immediately result in policy changes in Montana, which is supportive of the fossil fuel industry.

During the course of two weeks, the lawyers representing the plaintiffs intend to criticize state officials who have pursued oil, gas and coal production with the aim of setting an example for other states.

Grace Gibson-Snyder, a 19-year-old plaintiff, has personally felt the impact of global warming as her hometown of Missoula frequently becomes engulfed in hazardous smoke from wildfires while water levels decrease in nearby rivers.

According to Gibson-Snyder, Montana’s Legislature has repeatedly chosen to prioritize fossil fuel development over the needs of its residents. Although Gibson-Snyder was too young to vote when she took on the role of plaintiff, her passion for environmental activism began during high school.

The other young plaintiffs include members of Native American tribes, a family that relies on stable water supplies for their ranching business, and individuals with health ailments such as asthma that increase their vulnerability to wildfires.

During the trial, some of the plaintiffs and experts are likely to highlight the plight of farmers who have been affected by the ongoing drought and extreme weather events such as the devastating floods in Yellowstone National Park last year.

They will use this to bolster their argument that Montana’s residents have been deprived of the clean environment that the state’s Constitution guarantees them. On the other hand, experts representing the state are expected to downplay the impact of climate change and argue that Montana’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is minimal.

Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s legal team attempted to have the case dismissed on several occasions citing procedural issues. However, the state Supreme Court refused to intervene just days before the start of the trial, noting that it has been years in the making.

One reason the case may have made it so far in Montana, when dozens of similar cases elsewhere have been rejected, is the state’s unusually protective 1972 Constitution, which requires officials to maintain a “clean and healthful environment.” Only a few other states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, have similar environmental protections in their constitutions.

In prior rulings, State District Judge Judge Kathy Seeley significantly narrowed the scope of the case. Even if the plaintiffs prevail, Seeley has said she would not order officials to formulate a new approach to address climate change.

In this case, the judge could issue a “declaratory judgment” stating that officials have violated the state Constitution. This would set a precedent for courts to weigh in on cases that are typically left to the government’s legislative and executive branches. However, environmental law expert Jim Huffman notes that such a ruling would not directly impact industry and would be more of a symbolic victory.

Economist Terry Anderson testified on behalf of the state, highlighting that carbon dioxide emissions from Montana have declined over the past two decades but partially due to coal power plants being closed.

Economist Terry Anderson, who testified on behalf of the state in the Montana climate change lawsuit, claimed that Montana’s energy or environmental policies have little effect on global or local climate change. As per him, Montana’s greenhouse gas contributions to the global total are negligible.

Anderson further argued that climate change could ultimately benefit Montana by extending growing seasons and potentially producing more valuable crops.

Meanwhile, supporters of the lawsuit predict a large turnout for the trial, scheduled to start on Monday in Helena. They have rented a nearby theater to livestream the proceedings for those who cannot attend the courtroom.

The lawsuit in Montana was brought in 2020 by attorneys from the environmental group Our Children’s Trust on behalf of young plaintiffs. This group has been filing climate lawsuits in every state since 2011, but most of them were dismissed before trial, including a previous one in Montana.

If the ruling goes in favor of the Montana plaintiffs, it could have ripple effects, according to Philip Gregory, an attorney for Our Children’s Trust. Although it would not be binding outside Montana, it could provide guidance to judges in other states and impact upcoming trials like one in Hawaii.

Recent advancements at the federal level, such as the June 1st ruling allowing a case by young climate activists in Oregon to proceed to trial in U.S. District Court, suggest that attempts at a similar decision at the federal level have gained more support. The Oregon case had been stopped by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts just before the trial in 2018.

According to tax filings and the group’s website, Our Children’s Trust received over $20 million in contributions from 2011 through 2021 and expanded from four employees to a team of more than 40 attorneys and staff, along with about 200 volunteers.

Founder Julia Olson stated that securing trials in Montana and Oregon marks a significant step forward for the organization. She believes that it would change the future of the planet if courts begin to declare government conduct as unconstitutional.

Montana’s Constitution mandates the state to “maintain and improve” a clean environment, but the Montana Environmental Policy Act requires state agencies to balance resource development with environmental concerns. The lawsuit seeks to argue that the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to maintain and improve the environment because of the balance provided under the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

Lawmakers modified the Montana Environmental Policy Act this year so that environmental reviews could not evaluate greenhouse gas emissions and climate consequences unless carbon dioxide is regulated as a pollutant by the federal government.

A significant point for discussion during the trial will be how strongly the state opposes established science regarding human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental law professor Jonathan Adler of Case Western Reserve University believes that if the state accepts that science, the case would focus on whether courts have the authority to mandate governments to address climate change. Adler is, however, skeptical about the court’s ability to handle such a matter effectively.

For former plaintiff Charles Gibson-Snyder, who is now studying at Yale University in Connecticut, the justice system represented the only chance to bring about change when she was 16 years old. Despite that, she has become disillusioned and believes that it is not just about creating sustainable policies but also about dismantling policies that are actively harming Montana.