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Youth Sue State Over Climate Change,  Emerge Victorious

Youth Sue State Over Climate Change, Emerge Victorious

By RZR News Team
Aug 23, 2023

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Analysis

Montana; home to eight national parks, The Rocky Mountains, The Great Plains, the start of the Missouri River and known for its exquisite landscapes, wilderness and abundance of natural beauty, the fourth largest state in America encapsulates a variety of iconic northern, North American scenery. Even the state name “Montana” translates to “mountain” in Spanish, which furthers the sentiment that this state is synonymous with its natural landscapes. Recalling his time in Montana, American author James Lee Burke said, “The allure of Montana is like a commitment to a narcotic; you can never use it up or get enough of it. Its wilderness areas probably resemble the earth on the first day of creation.” You cannot refer to Montana without picturing the magnificent beauty that lies within state borders. 

Well, a state that is highly regarded for its ethereal charm, sure is empty. In 2020, Montana ranked as the 48th densest state with a population of 7.4 persons per square mile; perhaps these statistics are the reason for its beauty. Some of Montana’s top economic industries by GDP and 10-year growth rate are agriculture, forestry, mining, and energy production. This statistic is a possibility as to why the ruling in favor of environmental youth activists by Judge Kathy Seeley has become a national controversy. 

On August 14, history was made; Held vs. the State of Montana is the first case in our nation’s history in which a court ruling has determined that recent limitation laws passed by the state government have violated the Montana State Constitution. Montana is one of six states whose state constitution ensures a right to a healthy environment; the other five states are Hawai’i, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York. The 16 youth plaintiffs represented by Julia Olson from Our Children’s Trust, saw victory in their legal battles on behalf of these two articles in the Montana Constitution:

  1. Article II, Section 3: “All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment…”
  2. Article IX, Section 4: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

The legal battle appears to be a rollercoaster for both the plaintiffs and defendants based on the court-filed transcript. According to data within the Findings of Facts, the plaintiffs did their homework; during the June 12-20, 2023 trial, the court admitted 24 live witness testimonies and 168 exhibits from the plaintiffs, while the defendants presented three witnesses and four exhibits. 

The plaintiffs sought to prove that specific state-passed statutes and acts violated the state constitution’s right to a healthy environment through proving and providing evidence that present and projected continued harm, destruction and disturbance to the environment of Montana negatively impacts Montana citizens. Judge Kathy Seeley found standing for the plaintiffs and ruled in their favor. Upon request, the plaintiffs were awarded funds for reasonable attorney fees and costs.

Notably, Seeley determined that Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) limitations, House Bill No. 971 and Senate Bill No. 557, were found to be unconstitutional. MEPA was passed almost unanimously and via bipartisan support in 1971. The first full written page of the MEPA handbook is “In Memoriam” to Republican representative Geroge Darrow who sponsored the bill. Since then, MEPA has seen revisions, additions, and limitations, which have continuously stripped the original protocols of MEPA that require companies to be held to a good standard of environmental responsibility. House Bill No. 971 and Senate Bill No. 557, are examples of MEPA limitations; House Bill No. 971 prohibited Montana agencies from considering an “evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state’s borders,” and Senate Bill No. 557 removed “MEPA preventative equitable remedies.”

While this landmark ruling is certainly a win for environmental activists, the Montana state government needs to review and pass new laws to amend previous laws deemed unconstitutional, and this process could take a lot of time. Furthermore, the plaintiffs should not rest just yet; the defendants have 60 days to submit an appeal, which they have publicly announced is their intention to do. There is serious and loud backlash from the defendants; many businesses seek Montana to perform natural resource extraction such as oil drilling and mining for talc, palladium and platinum.  In fact, Montana is the only state known to produce palladium and platinum. Is the backlash in fear that companies may no longer seek Montana for business as a proper environmental review may not permit their business? Or could it be that disrupting current standards and protocols may temporarily impact the Montanan economy? No matter the reason for the backlash, it should not be a political issue to require companies to evaluate environmental impact prior to the onset of new projects, but sadly, it is. 

As a nation, many are left wondering if this ruling will kickstart court cases in other states whose state constitution has environmental health rights, and how rulings may impact their state statutes, business actions and the economy.  However, another side of the nation is thrilled that the health of the environment and impactful health issues were prioritized over political and economic interests. This court hearing will be the first of many in which the interests of environmental health will face the political and economic interests of business and government.

The people of Montana are extremely passionate about the land, whether for beauty or resources. There is no denying that Montana’s beauty should be preserved so that generations to come can explore “The Treasure State.” Although there is debate about whether Abraham Lincoln actually said this or not, the quote is, “My favorite state has not yet been invented. It will be called Montana, and it will be perfect.” Monday’s ruling will hopefully maintain the perfection of Montana for many future generations.

– SG

Learn more about the conservative viewpoint

In a landmark decision in the state of Montana, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of a group of youth activists in the state’s 1st Judicial District Court. The case is called Held v. State of Montana and it is based on allegations that the state’s energy policies violate a constitutional right that has been enshrined since the 1970s, to a clean and healthy environment. This is the first in the U.S. to rely on the state’s constitutional right to a safe and healthy environment, challenging state policies fueling climate change and setting a precedent for “green amendments” in climate litigation. 

The youth group of 16 plaintiffs was represented by an organization called Our Children’s Trust, a not-for-profit law firm representing young people and their legal right to a safe and climate. Our Children’s Trust has represented young people in Montana legal action since 2011. The plaintiffs argued the state’s failure to consider climate impacts while it was expanding fossil fuel infrastructure like coal mines and power plants. They also argued that the climate crisis was manifesting in Montana in a variety of ways from wildfire smoke causing breathing problems to Native Americans losing the ability to seek traditional food sources. The attorney for the plaintiffs presented evidence during the two-week trial, showing how increasing carbon dioxide emissions are driving hotter temperatures, more drought and wildfires and decreased snowpack.

These changes are harmful to the physical and mental well-being of the people. The state argued that Montana makes insignificant contributions to the overall climate crisis, stating that if Montana stopped producing CO2, it would have no effect on a global scale because other states and countries globally release CO2 in the atmosphere. State regulators also testified that they can’t legally reject projects that are in compliance with the law, even if they contribute to the climate crisis. 

Even though the decision may have an important legacy for setting a legal precedent, it may only have a limited impact in Montana. Also, it is up to the state Legislature to determine how to bring policy into compliance not the Judiciary, leaving a slim chance for change in a fossil-fuel-friendly state. While this is a fair point, it did not stop the Judge from ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. Plus, the state’s argument of fossil-fuel infrastructure not making a global impact does not necessarily prove that it is not causing harm to some degree. The plaintiffs are arguing that the infrastructure is affecting the people within the state and it does not matter how big or small, the contributions are detrimental and a violation of their constitutional rights.

The state did not have a vigorous stance against the plaintiffs, making it easy for the judge to write in the ruling that Montana’s emissions and climate change are proven to be a substantial factor causing harm and injury to the youth. The state’s argument seemed to be masked in deflection under the guise of saying there is much worse, so what is being done here is not that bad. That is similar to taking a stance against the U.S. making progress to mitigate climate change because China is the world’s largest contributor to global carbon emissions, negating the U.S.’s general global impact. Since the youth group was able to prove the harm to the environment and a violation of the state constitution, it can be considered a fair ruling.

The decision now means that the state must either have discretion to deny permits for fossil-fuel activities if the activities would result in greenhouse gas emissions being harmful to Montana’s environment and natural resources or the permitting statutes themselves must be unconstitutional. The ruling does not ban fossil fuels but limits the legislation that made Montana a fossil fuel haven. The fight is not over yet, Republican State Lawmakers and a Petroleum Industry Representative are hoping for an appeal, believing that the ruling will have economic consequences. Montana is a major producer of coal burned for electricity and has large oil and gas reserves and an appeal will not be successful if the state is still unable to provide evidence that the emissions are not harming the environment.  Although it is uncertain how Montana’s case will tackle climate litigation on a federal level it will be the foundational basis for other states, especially ones with green amendments. This historic win recognizes the impacts of climate change as an example of how change can work in favor of the public by challenging state laws and policies in order to prove any sort of violations and damages through the courts to seek justice. 

– Briauna B.

Learn more about the independent viewpoint

The recently decided “climate change lawsuit” of Held v. Montana has slipped under the radar of many news outlets, but the implications of said lawsuit are definitely worth paying attention to. This landmark ruling establishes that the state of Montana violated the constitutional rights of its citizens to a “clean and healthy environment” via fossil fuel development. 

The crux of this lawsuit was based on a segment from the Montana state constitution which read that “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Judge Seeley not only agreed that Montana’s endorsement of fossil fuels violated this right, but she also notably overturned a segment of the Montana Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) which prevented state officials from weighing the impact of global climate change when making policy decisions.

During the trial, the state of Montana only called three witnesses to defend its climate policies – an obvious sign of how weak the state’s case truly was. This is also the first time in American history that a climate lawsuit such as this was successful and many environmentalists are hopeful that it could set a precedent for climate justice in the future.

Those environmentalists might be celebrating too early, however. While Judge Seeley might have decided in favor of the Gen Z plaintiffs, the Republican-dominated Montana state legislature is ultimately responsible for determining how the state will comply with the Judge’s decision and not only that, but the Montana Attorney General’s office has already announced plans to appeal the decision. Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen endorsed mining operations in the state back when he was Speaker of the House, so this decision by him is not very surprising. 

Outside of the United States, the Montana ruling is not without precedent; in fact, one could argue that it is a part of a growing climate movement dedicated to protecting the environment through legislation. In 2022, The United Nations voted almost unanimously in favor of declaring the right to live in a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment a universal right. Outside of the U.N., other countries have also been increasingly considering the idea of granting legal rights to nature itselfEcuador, for example, was the first nation on Earth to include the rights of nature in its constitution.

Another notable country seeking climate justice is the small Pacific island of Vanuatu. Earlier this year, Vanuatu led a U.N. initiative seeking legal obligations from other countries for climate action. Over 130 countries co-sponsored their resolution, which could potentially hold states responsible for accelerating climate change and for their unwillingness to prevent it. Given how the wealthiest countries in the world are disproportionately responsible for climate change and how the damages caused by climate change will primarily affect poorer developing nations, initiatives like this will be essential moving forward. The biggest obstacle, however, will be the climate-denying politicians and fossil fuel companies who are promoting legislation designed to stop the fight against climate change. The GOP in Montana is only one such example of this.

– Matthew Kimball

Learn more about the liberal viewpoint

It is amusing how all facets of life age over time, taking on new perspectives and interpretations from generation to generation. For example, the line from the Hollies song of the same name goes “All I need is the air that I breathe.” This line has taken on a new meaning in the age of climate change and the continued calls for dramatic changes to help the environment. 

Climate activists may have scored a victory as a group of 16 children, some as young as five, are suing their home state of Montana over the constitutionality of climate change. Montana is a big producer of fossil fuels, quite literally fuelling the nation and now it seems the commitment to this industry may be coming at the price of its residents. 

This is the argument being made by the plaintiffs of the court case Held V. Montana. If the plaintiffs win this case, this will be a major victory in the fight against climate change and could set a precedent for citizens of other states to follow suit. 

This could also jeopardize existing legislation in the state, as Montana Governor Greg Gianforte signed into law an aggressive law that blocks state agencies from considering the environmental impact when it comes to large projects like coal mines and power plants.

In the past environmental cases have been shut down by courts since the environment is not necessarily considered to have its own form of legal standing. This most notably became an issue in the case Sierra Club v. Morton, where the members who sued could not prove to the court a tangible negative impact on them as individuals. 

Therefore the interesting point about Held v. Montana is the plaintiffs are being directly affected by this, and if the environment is not saved, their quality of living will be diminished. While this potentially could become a landmark victory for the environment, it makes one wonder if the environment should have its own form of legal standing against human activities and corporations.

Learn more about the libertarian viewpoint