A Montana state court is poised to hear a lawsuit against the state brought by children and teens who claim they have a right to a “stable climate.”
The “Youth Plaintiffs,” ranging in age from two to 18, allege they are “disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis” and will “face lifelong hardships” unless the state government steps in to mitigate the supposed threats by developing a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to the March 2020 complaint. Since Montana’s constitution grants them a right to a “clean and healthful environment,” they argue the courts must bring the state’s energy system “into constitutional compliance.”
The Montana governor, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Department of Transportation, and Public Service Commission are all listed as defendants in the lawsuit.
“The release of anthropogenic GHGs into the atmosphere is already triggering a host of adverse consequences in Montana, including dangerously increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, increasing droughts and extreme weather events, increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires, increasing glacial melt, and causing numerous adverse health risks, especially to children,” the lawsuit states.
The case is the first of its kind to go to trial, the Brennan Center for Justice notes. Other similar cases have failed at earlier stages.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found in 2020 it could not grant the relief a group of young Americans requested in their lawsuit against the federal government for its support of fossil fuels, though it noted the record “left little basis for denying that climate change was occurring at an increasingly rapid pace.” The case was dismissed for lack of standing.
The Oregon Supreme Court ruled against youth plaintiffs in 2020 in a similar lawsuit against then-Gov. Kate Brown.
In January 2022, the Alaska Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit by 16 youth plaintiffs who said the state’s backing of fossil fuel production was a violation of their constitutional rights. A Florida state judge dismissed another similar case in 2020, noting that judges shouldn’t dictate public policy because “a dictator in a black robe isn’t any better than a dictator in a suit or in a military uniform” and that the people will “eventually get this climate thing right” through their elected representatives.
But Montana First Judicial District Court Judge Kathy Seeley denied the state’s bid to stop this case from moving forward in 2021.
A trial is scheduled for June 12. The lawsuit is backed by Our Children’s Trust, McGarvey Law and the Western Environmental Law Center.
The Public Land & Resources Law Review said that the case “provides a roadmap for future climate change litigation.”
The Hawaii court found in March there is a right to a “life-sustaining climate system” while deciding a dispute between a state regulator and an energy company.
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