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In US first, Montana youth win lawsuit requiring state to consider climate change

by nytime
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A youth-led climate lawsuit won a historic decision today, with a Montana court ruling that the state must consider climate change and environmental protections in the approval process for new energy projects.

It’s the first youth-led climate lawsuit to have this level of success in the US, possibly setting precedent for others around the country.

The lawsuit, Held v. Montana, was brought by 16 Montana plaintiffs between ages 5-22, and supported by Our Children’s Trust, a law firm representing youth climate lawsuits across the country.

At issue was the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), which explicitly disallows consideration of environmental factors in the approval process for oil and gas permits. The youth argued that this law violated their rights under the Montana state constitution, which guarantees the right to “a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

Judge Kathy Seeley of the First Judicial District Court of Montana ruled in favor of the youth today, holding that greenhouse gases cause significant harm to the plaintiffs, and invalidating the Montana law that stops environmental review as “unconstitutional on its face.”

The state has indicated that it plans to appeal the decision, despite the unequivocal clarity in the Montana constitution’s guarantee of a clean and healthful environment. The Montana Attorney General’s office said that Montana, home of the largest coal reserves in the US and one of the highest rates of emissions per capita, can have “no meaningful impact” on the climate, which is factually incorrect.

This is the first ruling in favor of a youth-led climate lawsuit in the US, several of which have been proceeding through state and federal courts in recent years. Some are still waiting for their court dates to come (for example, Hawaii youth have a court date next year), though many have been prematurely dismissed by courts.

The most notable previous example is Juliana v. US, which argues that the federal government has violated the due process clause in depriving these youth of their rights to life, liberty, and property through environmental degradation.

This lawsuit was blocked by the 9th District Court in California in 2020 in a split 2-1 decision, which ruled that the youth did not have standing to bring a lawsuit on these claims. Standing means that plaintiffs must show that they have suffered injury from a law in order to file a lawsuit over it.

So, despite that children and all other living things are in actual fact harmed by a declining environment, the district court still ruled against the youth for the time being. The case is still ongoing, with plaintiffs working to amend their arguments to fit the absurd requirements imposed by the district court.

But the Held decision today is the first real precedent, an actual ruling set by a court, stating that the rights of young people to a clean and healthful environment have been violated by law. It may be a particularly egregious law in this case, and as such there may not be quite as perfect a set of circumstances as this in other lawsuits, but nevertheless this decision could light a fire under other cases in other states.

Even if this decision does get reversed on appeal – which would be folly, as was the 9th Circuit’s decision – this case could serve as a signal to other judges that it is indeed possible and reasonable to take a stance in favor of the best interests of the people, and in favor of constitutional law, rather than cowing to the power of the fossil fuel industry in a state that is largely run by it.

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