Young environmentalists take Montana climate case to trial after 12 years, seeking to set precedent

HELEN, Mont. (AP) — The question of whether a constitutional right to a healthy and livable climate is protected by state law is at the center of a trial set for trial Monday in Montana, where 16 young plaintiffs and their attorneys hope set an important legal precedent.

It is the first such lawsuit in the United States, and legal scholars around the world are following its potential addition to the small number of decisions that have established the government’s obligation to protect citizens from climate change.

The lawsuit comes shortly after the state’s Republican-dominated legislature passed measures favoring the fossil fuel industry by stifling local government efforts to encourage renewable energy while raising the cost of challenging oil, gas and coal projects in court.

By recruiting plaintiffs between the ages of 5 and 22, the environmental company filing the lawsuit is trying to highlight how young people are being impacted by climate change now and will be impacted even more in the future. Their testimony will detail how wildfire smoke, heat and drought have affected the physical and mental health of residents.

The plaintiffs’ youthfulness has little direct bearing on legal issues, and experts say the case is unlikely to lead to immediate policy changes in fossil-fuel-friendly Montana.

But after two weeks of testimony, plaintiffs’ attorneys plan to call out state officials for pursuing oil, gas and coal development in hopes of sending a powerful message to other states.

Plaintiff Grace Gibson-Snyder, 19, said she felt the impacts of the heating planet acutely as wildfires routinely enveloped her hometown of Missoula in dangerous smoke and water levels were falling in the rivers of the region.

“We’ve seen many times over the past few years what the Montana state legislature chooses,” Gibson-Snyder said. “They choose the development of fossil fuels. They choose businesses over the needs of their citizens.

In high school, Gibson-Snyder was an environmental activist who was too young to vote when she registered as a plaintiff. Other young plaintiffs include members of Native American tribes, a ranching family dependent on a reliable water supply and people with health conditions, such as asthma, that put them at increased risk during fires. of forest.

Some plaintiffs and experts will point to farmers whose margins have been squeezed by drought and extreme weather events like last year’s destructive flooding in Yellowstone National Park as further evidence that residents have been denied the clean environment. guaranteed by the Montana Constitution.

State experts are expected to downplay the impacts of climate change and what one described as Montana’s “tiny” contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Lawyers for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a Republican, have repeatedly tried to have the case dismissed on procedural grounds. In a June 6 ruling, the state Supreme Court rejected the latest attempt to dismiss, saying judges were unwilling to intervene just days before the start of a trial that has taken “literally years.” to prepare”.

One of the reasons the case has been able to make it so far in Montana, when dozens of similar cases elsewhere have been thrown out, is the exceptionally protective 1972 Constitution, which requires officials to maintain a “clean and healthy environment”. Only a few other states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, have similar environmental protections in their constitutions.

In previous rulings, the state’s District Judge, Judge Kathy Seeley, significantly narrowed the scope of the case. Even if the plaintiffs prevail, Seeley said she would not order officials to formulate a new approach to tackle climate change.

Instead, the judge could issue what’s called a “declaratory judgment” declaring that those responsible violated the state constitution. It would set a new legal precedent of courts weighing in on matters typically left to the legislative and executive branches of government, said environmental law expert Jim Huffman.

Still, such a move would have no direct impact on the industry, said Huffman, dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.

“A declaratory judgment would be a symbolic victory, but would not require any particular action by the state government. So the state could, and probably would, proceed as before,” he said.

Economist Terry Anderson, a state witness, said that over the past two decades Montana’s carbon dioxide emissions have declined, but that’s partly due to the shutdown of coal-fired power plants.

“Montana’s energy or environmental policies have virtually no effect on global or local climate change because Montana’s GHG (greenhouse gas) contributions to the global total are insignificant,” Anderson said in court documents.

He argued that climate change could ultimately benefit Montana with longer growing seasons and the potential to produce more valuable crops.

Trial supporters have predicted an overflowing crowd when the trial begins in Helena on Monday. They have rented a nearby theater to broadcast the proceedings live for those unable to enter the courtroom.

The case was brought in 2020 by attorneys for the environmental group Our Children’s Trust, which has brought climate lawsuits in every state on behalf of young plaintiffs since 2011. Most of those cases, including a previous one in Montana, were dismissed before trial.

A ruling in favor of the Montana plaintiffs could have ripple effects, according to Our Children’s Trust attorney Philip Gregory. While it’s not binding outside of Montana, it would give guidance to judges in other states, which could impact future trials, like the one in Hawaii, Gregory said.

Attempts to secure a similar decision at the federal level were spurred by a June 1 ruling allowing a case brought by young climate activists in Oregon to go to trial in US district court. That case was halted by US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts on the eve of the trial in 2018.

From 2011 to 2021, Our Children’s Trust has made contributions of more than $20 million, growing from four staff to a team of more than 40 attorneys and other workers and about 200 volunteers, according to tax filings and the Trust’s website. band.

Founder Julia Olson said securing trials in Montana and Oregon was a “huge step forward” for the group.

“It will change the future of the planet if the courts start to declare government conduct unconstitutional,” she said.

While Montana’s Constitution requires the state to “maintain and improve” a clean environment, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, originally passed in 1971 and amended several times since, requires state agencies balance the environment with resource development.

Lawmakers revised the policy this year to say that environmental reviews cannot examine greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts unless the federal government makes carbon dioxide a regulated pollutant.

A key issue for the lawsuit will be how strongly the state challenges established science about man-made greenhouse gas emissions, said Jonathan Adler, professor of environmental law at Case Western Reserve. University of Cleveland. If the state does not deny this science, the lawsuit will focus on whether the courts can tell governments to fight climate change.

“I’m skeptical about it,” Adler said. “It really pushes the boundaries of what the courts are able and effective to deal with.”

For Gibson-Snyder, now a student at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, the justice system became the only way to effect change at age 16.

Since then, “I may have become a bit disillusioned,” she said. “The question is not only can we create sustainable policy, but how can we dismantle policy that is actively harming Montana?”


Brown reported from Billings, Montana. Associated Press writer Drew Costley contributed from Washington, D.C.

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