BILLINGS, MONT. –
Young environmental activists prevailed in a closely watched Montana lawsuit that said state officials weren’t doing enough to protect them from climate change.
Legal observers called it a landmark victory for the 16 plaintiffs: It marks the first time a court in the U.S. has declared that a government has a constitutional duty to protect people from climate change.
Here’s what to know about Monday’s potentially groundbreaking ruling that followed a first-of-its-kind trial earlier this summer:
WHAT DID THE RULING SAY?
State District Judge District Judge Kathy Seeley said officials violated Montana’s highly protective constitution by refusing to consider the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions when they’ve approved coal mines, oil drilling and new power plants.
Attorneys for Montana argued the state’s emissions were too small to make much difference in climate change.
Seeley rejected the argument, saying essentially that every ton of greenhouse gas counts toward global warming and each ton makes the plaintiff’s lives worse as wildfires in Montana get worse and streams dry up from drought.
The judge also said the state can do something about it — deny permits for fossil fuel projects if their approval would result in “unconstitutional levels of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.”
Montana has some of the world’s largest coal reserves.
“Montana’s land contains a significant quantity of fossil fuels yet to be extracted,” Seeley wrote. “The State and its agents could consider GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions and climate impacts and reject projects that would lead to unreasonable degradation of Montana’s environment.”
SO WHAT DO THE YOUNG ACTIVISTS GET OUT OF THEIR VICTORY?
Seeley’s opinion was carefully crafted to avoid wading too deeply into policy matters that are considered the function of other branches of government and not the courts.
“It doesn’t try to set up the court to set climate policy for Montana, which is something that a lot of courts have balked at — the idea that on their own they can figure out how much climate mitigation should be done,” said David Dana, a professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law specializing in environmental law.
The ruling applies only in Montana — one of few states with a constitution to explicitly protect environmental rights. The state’s Republican attorney general already has promised an appeal.
If it stands, Montana officials no longer will be able legally to ignore the huge contributions to global warming made by fossil fuels. Whether they do anything about those emissions is another question.
The federal government, for example, has for more than a decade analyzed greenhouse gas emissions from major oil, gas and coal projects — oftentimes under court order. Yet Democratic and Republican administrations alike have continued to approve drilling and mining projects.
That seems likely to happen in Montana especially for the immediate future. Republicans hold a supermajority in the Legislature and have been strong advocates for more drilling and mining.
Notwithstanding that political reality, one of the young plaintiffs, Clare Vlases, 20, of Bozeman, said she believed Seeley’s decision will serve as a check on the other branches of government that are promoting fossil fuels.
“I know my Montana lawmakers respect the constitution and they respect our governmental processes,” Vlases said. “With that respect comes the responsibility to listen to this decision.”
WHAT ARE THE BROADER LEGAL IMPLICATIONS?
Never before has a U.S. court weighed in to say that a constitutional right to a healthy environment “includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.”
That makes the ruling a landmark in climate litigation, said Sandra Zellmer, a professor of natural resources and environmental law at the University of Montana Blewett School of Law.
It could have even greater impact if it is upheld by the Montana Supreme Court, bolstering its impact as a legal precedent that could be cited in cases across the U.S. and even nationally, Zellmer said.
Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts have constitutions with environmental protections similar to Montana’s.
WHAT OTHER CASES LIKE THIS ARE OUT THERE?
There have been few comparable court decisions on climate change internationally, including a 2019 ruling from the Netherlands’ top cour t in favor of activists who for years sought legal orders to force the Dutch government into cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
In the U.S., the environmental law firm that brought the Montana case — Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust — has filed climate change lawsuits in every state, with most of those unsuccessful. Its victory in Montana came a decade after the state’s Supreme Court denied an earlier climate change case from the firm.
Two lawsuits from Our Children’s Trust are inching toward trial.
In Hawaii, a state judge set a trial next summer in a lawsuit that says the state is violating plaintiffs’ rights by operating a transportation system that produces large amounts of greenhouse gasses.
And in Oregon, a federal judge ruled in June that climate activists can proceed to trial years after they first filed a lawsuit that seeks to hold the nation’s leadership accountable for its role in climate change. A date has not yet been set. A previous trial in the case was scuttled by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts days before it was to begin in 2018.