This week marked a historic environmental law decision that will influence courts nationwide. Held vs. Montana concluded with victory for 16 young plaintiffs who sued the state for failing to protect their constitutional right to a healthy environment.
Montana First Judicial District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that the state of Montana must consider how its actions and regulations affect the environment and the future impacts of climate change. Montana is one of three states with a constitutional amendment protecting the right to a healthy environment. The state added the amendment in 1972, but this is the first court challenge that asked for environmental protections to be enforced.
“Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system,” Judge Seeley concluded.
“In Montana, the people now have a powerful legal tool to take on government officials who are failing in their moral, political, and now constitutional duty to protect the environment, the climate and the health and safety of present and future generations.” said Maya van Rossum, Founder of Green Amendments for The Generations, an organization working to pass green amendments at the state and federal level.
The Road Ahead
Judge Seeley’s decision laid out the extensive evidence presented by experts that demonstrate the teens’ future is at risk because of Montana’s lax approach to regulating environmental impacts. She showed how the kids’ lives have already been impacted by changes in temperature and precipitation to the increased incidence of pest infestations and wildfires.
The state’s Attorney General, Austin Knudsen, dismissed the ruling, telling the Bozeman Daily Chronicle: “This ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiffs’ attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial. Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate — even the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses agreed that our state has no impact on the global climate.”
Knudsen promised to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
However, Judge Seeley’s decision goes to great pains to document that climate change will have a concrete future impact on children. She went on to find that the state’s actions contribute to climate change. For example, Montana uses four coal-burning energy facilities for 30% of its electricity. The state continues to issue permits for coal mining in the state, Judge Seeley wrote, “without considering how the additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the standards the Montana Constitution imposes on the State to protect people’s rights.”
The impact for Montanans is plain. State policy making, such as when it issues fossil fuel permits, must change to include assessments of any regulatory decision’s immediate and future environmental impact.
But the implications are also national, as there is now legal precedent to hold a government accountable for the environmental and climate consequences of permitted actions. The ruling opens the door for plaintiffs in Montana, Pennsylvania, and New York, the other two states with green amendments, to sue for protection. Fifteen other states are considering adding environmental protections to their constitutions.
Legal precedent is essential to creating change in the United States, making future legislation and green amendments easier to pass. The Held case will inform other lawsuits to instigate changes nationwide. Even now, one could point to Held v. Montana to petition for change in their state.
“Today, for the first time in U.S. 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,” said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, the organization that brought the suit on behalf of 16 Montana teenagers.
With the precedent set, you can keep the momentum going. Write your representatives, asking them to support green amendments in your state and nationally. Start a petition to tell your governor you care about climate change and want to prevent it from worsening. And vote for change. Held v. Montana is an example of how positive change can be made by anyone, even teens with the courage to stand up to their state government.