Montana youth climate activists gain historic win in court

Judge rules emissions and climate change affected state's environment and caused 'harm and injury' to youths

Despite the ruling, there is only a slim chance for immediate change in a fossil fuel-friendly state where Republicans dominate the statehouse. AFP
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In a landmark climate trial on Monday, a Montana court ruled in favour of a group of young people who accused the western US state of violating their right to a clean environment.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley said a state law preventing agencies from considering the impacts of greenhouse gases when issuing permits for fossil fuel development was unconstitutional.

Ms Seeley wrote in her more than 100-page ruling that “Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury” to young people, AP reported.

“Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system,” Ms Seeley wrote.

However, it is up to the state legislature to determine how to bring policies into compliance.

That leaves slim chances for immediate change in a fossil fuel-friendly state where Republicans dominate the statehouse.

The case, Held v Montana, brought by plaintiffs ranging in age from five to 22, has been closely watched because it could bolster similar litigation that has been filed across the country.

The case was the first involving a constitutional claim against a state and also represented a rare instance in which climate experts were questioned on the witness box, AFP reported.

At the heart of the case was a provision within the fossil fuel friendly state's constitution that says: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

The youths said they had been harmed by the “dangerous impacts of fossil fuels and the climate crisis”, with children “uniquely vulnerable” to its worsening effects.

Lawyers from legal non-profit Our Children’s Trust spearhead the cases, and lauded the “sweeping” victory in Montana, Bloomberg reported.

“Today, for the first time in US history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change and disproportionately imperil young people,” the organisation's legal counsel Julia Olson said in a statement.

Updated: August 14, 2023, 6:52 PM