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Montana Youth Take State Government to Trial Over Responsibility to Protect Residents from Climate Change

by Joshua Brown
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climate change litigation

In Montana, a two-week trial commenced on Monday, centering around the obligation of the state government to safeguard its population from the perils of climate change. A group of young individuals, who are already experiencing the detrimental effects of worsening wildfires, dwindling streams, and melting mountain glaciers, assert that their health, livelihoods, and those of future generations are being jeopardized.

Supported by a procession of climate experts, the sixteen plaintiffs aim to convince a judge that the state’s allegiance to fossil fuel development endangers their well-being. Attorney Roger Sullivan, representing the plaintiffs, emphasized in his opening statements that Montana is constitutionally bound to shield its residents from the impacts of climate change. While legal experts believe this state court case could establish a precedent, it is unlikely to bring immediate policy changes to fossil fuel-friendly Montana.

Responding to the allegations, Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell contended that climate change is a global issue and that the harm alleged by the young plaintiffs cannot be directly linked to specific actions taken by state officials.

Environmentalists view this bench trial as a turning point, as similar lawsuits in almost every state have previously been dismissed. A favorable verdict could contribute to the few global rulings that acknowledge governments’ duty to protect citizens from climate change.

One factor that may have propelled this case further in Montana is the state’s constitutional requirement to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment.” Only a handful of states, such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York, have comparable environmental safeguards embedded in their constitutions.

The plaintiffs criticize state officials for their alleged negligence in curbing emissions that contribute to global warming, while Montana continues to pursue oil, gas, and coal development, which generate employment, tax revenue, and meet energy demands in Montana and beyond.

The plaintiffs point to the smoke from increasingly severe wildfires polluting the air they breathe, droughts depleting rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, wildlife, and recreation, as well as reduced snowpack and shorter winter seasons that impact recreational activities.

State experts are expected to counter these claims by arguing that climate extremes have existed for centuries, and Montana’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is relatively insignificant.

Carbon dioxide, released during the combustion of fossil fuels, traps heat in the atmosphere and is a major driver of climate warming. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration reported earlier this month that carbon dioxide levels in the air reached the highest point in over 4 million years this spring. Additionally, greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

Since the lawsuit was filed three years ago, its focus has been narrowed to whether Montana’s Environmental Policy Act, which mandates state agencies to balance environmental health with resource development, is unconstitutional because it does not require officials to consider greenhouse gas emissions and their climate impacts.

Judge Kathy Seeley has indicated that she may rule that the state’s climate change exception in its environmental law contradicts the constitution, but she cannot dictate the corrective measures that the legislature should undertake.


Note: The original text contained a reference to another news story that is unrelated to the content of the article. It has been omitted in the rewritten version.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about climate change litigation

What is the trial in Montana about?

The trial in Montana is centered around the state government’s obligation to protect its residents from climate change. A group of youth plaintiffs are asserting that they are already being harmed by worsening wildfires, drying streams, and melting glaciers.

What are the plaintiffs trying to prove?

The plaintiffs, supported by climate experts, are aiming to persuade the judge that the state’s support for fossil fuel development endangers their health, livelihoods, and the well-being of future generations.

What is the plaintiffs’ argument based on?

The plaintiffs argue that Montana has a constitutional obligation to protect its residents from climate change and that the state’s emphasis on fossil fuel development is detrimental to their interests.

How does the state respond to the allegations?

The state argues that climate change is a global issue and that the harm claimed by the plaintiffs cannot be directly attributed to specific actions taken by state officials.

Could this trial set a legal precedent?

Experts believe that while this case in state court could potentially set a legal precedent, it is unlikely to result in immediate policy changes in Montana, which has a favorable stance towards fossil fuel industries.

Why is this trial significant?

This trial is seen as a turning point because similar climate change lawsuits in many other states have previously been dismissed. A favorable decision could contribute to a growing number of rulings worldwide recognizing governments’ duty to protect citizens from climate change.

What is the scope of the case?

The case now revolves around whether Montana’s Environmental Policy Act, which requires state agencies to balance environmental health with resource development, is unconstitutional due to its exclusion of greenhouse gas emissions and their climate impacts from consideration.

Can the judge mandate changes to the law?

While the judge may rule that the state’s climate change exception in its environmental law is contradictory to the constitution, she does not have the authority to instruct the legislature on how to rectify the violation.

More about climate change litigation

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