Montana’s youth are the first to be judged over whether the state is obligated to protect residents from climate change

HELEN, Mont. (AP) – A group of young people in Montana who say their lives are already being affected by climate change and the state government is failing to protect them is the first of dozens of such efforts to so that their trial is judged on Monday. They will try to persuade a judge that the state’s allegiance to fossil fuel development endangers their health and livelihoods and those of future generations.

The 16 plaintiffs argue that Montana has a constitutional obligation to protect residents from climate change in a case that experts say could set legal precedent but is unlikely to bring immediate changes to policy in the pro-fossil fuel state.

Environmentalists have called the planned two-week trial a watershed as similar lawsuits in nearly every state have already been dismissed. A favorable ruling could join a handful of rulings around the world that have said governments have a duty to protect citizens from climate change.

One of the reasons the case may have made it this far in Montana is the state’s constitutional requirement that the government “maintain and improve a clean and wholesome environment.” Only a few states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, have similar environmental protections in their constitutions.

The plaintiffs criticize state officials for their alleged failure to reduce global warming emissions as Montana pursues oil, gas and coal development that provides jobs, tax revenue and helps meet the energy needs of people in Montana and elsewhere.

Plaintiffs cite smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathe; drought-dried rivers that support agriculture, fishing, wildlife and recreation; as well as reduced snowpack and shorter winter recreation seasons.

State experts are expected to counter that climate extremes have existed for centuries and that Montana is making “tiny” contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burned, traps heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for global warming. Carbon dioxide levels in the air this spring have reached the highest levels in more than 4 million years, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month. Greenhouse gas emissions also hit a record high last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

In the three years since the lawsuit was filed, the scope of the case has narrowed to whether Montana’s environmental policy law — which requires state agencies to balance the health of environment versus resource development – is unconstitutional because it does not require officials to consider greenhouse gas emissions or their impacts on the climate.

Judge Kathy Seeley said she could rule that the state’s climate change exception in its environmental law is at odds with its Constitution, but she can’t tell the legislature what to do to remedy the violation. .

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Brown reported from Billings, Mont.

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