Berkeley, CA — A Montana judge handed down what is being described as a landmark victory for climate rights to a group of young activists on Monday. They sued the state of Montana, one of the largest producers of coal in the nation, for violating their constitutional rights to a “clean and healthful environment,” by continuing to support the industry.
This constitutional provision dates back to the 1970s, when conservation was a top priority; only a few other states have similar clauses. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found the policy the state uses in evaluating requests for fossil fuel permits is unconstitutional because it does not allow agencies to evaluate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, NPR reported. Seeley wrote in her ruling, “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.”
The plaintiffs, who range in age from 5 to 22, described in great detail the negative ways, including being “disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts,” in which climate change has impacted their lives throughout the two-week trial.
When the the group learned of the ruling, many were speechless
“This ruling, this case; it is truly historic. We are heard! Frankly the elation and joy in my heart is overwhelming in the best way. We set the precedent not only for the United States, but for the world,” said Kian, 18, one of the youth plaintiffs.
The AP reported the story of Claire Vlases, who was 17 years old when she became a plaintiff. Now 20, Vlases said climate change hangs over every aspect of her life. “I think a lot of young people feel really helpless, especially when it comes to the future. Hopefully this is one for history.” She expects the state legislature to hold true to the ruling.
The group was represented by an Oregon based environmental law firm, Our Children’s Trust. No previous attempts of climate cases have reached trial; Held v. Montana was the first.
According to scientists, July 2023 was the hottest month on record. The heat has been unrelenting in places like Phoenix, where it was above 110° more than 19 days in a row, and also parts of Texas. August has seen the island of Maui reduced to ashes in many places.
The State has 60 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
Willow Thomas (she/they/he) is a Berkeley, California-based arts and culture journalist. Follow them on Instagram at @thecurlythomas.
Edited by Nykeya Woods