Montana youth make history with climate change lawsuit

Sixteen Montana youth sued the state in 2020 alleging constitutional climate change violations, now the case is going to trial.

By: - April 28, 2022 4:43 pm

Melbourne Global climate strike on Sep 20, 2019 had well more than 100,000 people attending in Treasury Gardens and a 1.2km march through the streets of Melbourne, being the largest climate protest in Australia to date, and rivalling the anti-war protests in 2003 and the Vietnam Moratorium in 1970. (Photo by John Englart via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0)

In the summer of 2012, a large wildfire swept through the Broadus ranch owned by the family of Ricki Held, causing her family to lose electricity for one month and killing several cattle, which resulted in significant financial losses for the family.

Now Held is suing the state of Montana and several of its government agencies, alleging the state’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry has contributed to the climate change crisis and Montana violating multiple constitutional rights, including the right to a “clean and healthful” environment.

“Defendants have developed and implemented a State Energy Policy in Montana for decades, which involves systemic authorization, permitting, encouragement, and facilitation of activities promoting fossil fuels and resulting in dangerous levels of (greenhouse gas) emissions, without regard to climate change impacts or the fundamental rights of Youth Plaintiffs and future generations of Montanans,” the lawsuit reads.

Held, then 18, was one of 16 Montana youth between the ages of two and 18 to file the lawsuit in 2020. Defendants in the case include the state of Montana, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Department of Transportation and the Montana Public Service Commission.

Emily Jones, a Billings-based lawyer representing the state in the case, did not respond to a request for comment about the litigation.

In August 2021, Lewis and Clark County District Judge Kathy Seeley denied a motion from the state to dismiss the case, setting the path for the case to become the first-ever youth constitutional climate case to go to trial.

“The state of Montana has denied basically everything … the trial is a historic opportunity to provide all of the scientific evidence and to really put the state on the spot to take a position in a courtroom,” said Nate Bellinger, a senior staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm that is representing the youth plaintiffs. 

The case is part of a larger movement of youth-led climate change lawsuits taking place across the country.

Our Children’s Trust is currently supporting youth-led climate change lawsuits in Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington and one lawsuit filed against the federal government.

The plaintiffs are asking the courts to invalidate the Montana State Environmental Policy Act, which the lawsuit says “explicitly promotes the use of dangerous fossil fuels that cause numerous social, environmental, and economic costs and harms to the short- and long-term detriment of Montana citizens.”

Additionally, the plaintiffs are taking issue with the section of the Montana State Environmental Policy Act that says the state in an environmental review “may not include a review of actual or potential impacts beyond Montana’s borders or consider actual or potential impacts that are regional, national, or global in nature” unless it is concerning the management of wildlife.

“This has been interpreted to mean that Defendants cannot consider the impacts of climate change in their environmental reviews,” the lawsuit reads.

And not being able to consider the impacts of climate change is having a detrimental impact on the plaintiffs’ and future generations’ quality of life in Montana, Bellinger said.

“It’s undeniable right now that we have a very real and dangerous and destructive climate crisis on our hands and that climate crisis is causing the plaintiffs really grave injuries and those injuries are going to get a lot worse if nothing is done,” he said. “We expect our government to protect us, and instead of the state of Montana protecting the constitutional rights of these youth, the state is affirmatively active in doubling down on fossil fuels.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.