Sixteen Montana youths sued the state of Montana for using a fossil-fuel based energy system and won. The August 14 ruling determined that not considering environmental impacts when making decisions regarding fossil fuels is unconstitutional under Montana’s Environmental Policy Act, which states that Montanans have a right to a clean environment.
“The outcome is surprising in that it is exactly what we had hoped for,” attorney Barbara Chillcott of Western Environmental Law Center says. “That almost never happens.” The youths, whose ages range from 5 to 22, filed the lawsuit in March 2020 with the support of WELC, which has offices in Eugene, and the Eugene-based nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust. Chillcott said the state “pulled out all the stops” in trying to keep this case from moving to trial.
The state filed multiple motions to dismiss the case, claiming that the plaintiffs didn’t have proper standing to move forward. The state also filed appeals in the case to stop the trial. The Montana Supreme Court denied those requests, and the youths and Our Children’s Trust had a “remarkable” eight days in trial.
Montana’s primary defense was that the state didn’t produce enough greenhouse gasses to make an environmental impact. Judge Kathy Seeley rejected that defense based on the evidence presented by youth plaintiffs who provided personal experience with the effects of climate change.
Youth plaintiff Eva L. testified that her family was forced to relocate from her home in Livingston due to extreme flooding of the Shields River that destroyed a bridge connecting her home to the town. Eva said that the collapse of the bridge caused a lot of stress to her and her family, which forced them to eventually move.
Plaintiffs also presented data that indicated a correlation between flooding and wildfires to the rise in Montana’s temperature as well as across the globe. Data presented in the case showed that in 2019 Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions were higher than many other countries, including the United Kingdom, Japan and Brazil.
Our Children’s Trust wasn’t available for an interview, but Chief Legal Counsel and Executive Director Julia Olsen writes in a press release that “As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos.”
Tom Coffin, one of the original judges who made rulings in the high-profile federal climate change case Juliana v. The United States, says he believes that the Montana lawsuit will “absolutely” set a precedent for other environmental cases to follow.
The youth plaintiffs in Juliana are working with the same legal team as the Montana lawsuit but have been in federal courts using the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act as their standing. The case was dismissed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020, but as of June 1 Judge Ann Aiken has the ability to take their case back to trial.
Coffin says the key to making environmental change through the courts is by taking climate change cases to trial “as many times as possible,” because plaintiffs can use trial records as evidence that the Supreme Court eventually can’t ignore.
“They need to hear from scientists and victims,” Coffin says. “You need to put flesh and blood on your case so they have to deal with the facts and stop soft pedaling.”