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A judge in Montana ruled in favour of youth climate activists on Monday in a landmark decision that established young people had a right to a “clean and healthful environment”.
Judge Kathy Seeley found that the state’s decision to exclude consideration of the impact of emissions in oil and gas permitting violated a provision of Montana’s constitution guaranteeing the right to a “clean and healthful environment”, and that the state’s carbon footprint had caused “harm and injury” to the young plaintiffs.
The court case, Held vs Montana, was filed in March 2020 in Lewis and Clark county, which is where the state capital of Helena is located. While its immediate impact is limited to the western state, it could shape future court decisions regarding the government and the fossil fuel industry’s responsibility for climate change.
During a week-long trial in June, the plaintiffs, along with climate scientists and medical experts, testified on the negative impact of climate change on the wellbeing and development of young people.
“Today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos,” said Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The ruling comes as the world scorches under record hot temperatures and the US faces its deadliest wildfire outbreak in more than a century in Hawaii. While the decision is the first of its kind in the US, it follows similar rulings siding with young environmentalists across the world, including in the Netherlands, Germany and Pakistan.
Ben Jealous, the executive director of the Sierra Club, called the ruling a “historic victory” to ensure a liveable future for all generations.
“We must act with greater urgency to protect those already threatened by the climate crisis to leave a better world for those that come after us,” Jealous said.
Emily Flower, a spokesperson for Montana attorney-general Austin Knudsen, one of the defendants in the case, called the ruling “absurd” and said the state would appeal against it.
“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 . . . They found an ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward and earn herself a spot in their next documentary,” said Flower.
Montana is just one of three states, including New York, and Pennsylvania, to include the right to a healthy environment in its constitution, a key part of Monday’s court ruling.
“From the perspective of appearances, this is an important case . . . But ultimately, it doesn’t impact what will happen in other cases,” said Janet Whittaker, senior counsel at Clifford Chance. “Obviously the fact that Montana had this decision is a positive development if you’re a plaintiff, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will win in New York.”
While legal experts are sceptical about the direct impact of the court decision, they say it will inform future youth-led climate cases.
“This decision is limited to the state constitution in Montana, and has no precedential value outside the state,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “At the same time, judges look at what other judges are doing. This judge’s determination . . . will influence and inform what judges elsewhere in the United States and in other courts around the world do.”