A Montana judge ruled Monday, Aug. 14, in favor of young people who accused their state of violating their constitutional right to a "clean and healthy environment" by favoring the fossil fuel industry, a landmark decision in the first major climate trial of its kind in the United States.
The judge declared unconstitutional a Montana law prohibiting local government from considering the climate consequences of greenhouse gas emissions when granting permits to fossil fuel companies. This clause of the law is struck down, ruled Justice Kathy Seeley.
"The plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes climate," she wrote in her more than 100-page ruling. "By prohibiting the analysis of greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the climate," the clause of this law "is unconstitutional," she said.
One of the peculiarities of this trial is that the sixteen plaintiffs, who did not seek financial compensation, are between 5 and 22 years old. They argue that as children and young adults, the dangerous consequences of fossil fuels and the climate crisis are particularly damaging to them.
"For the first time in U.S. history, a court has ruled on the merits that a government violated children's constitutional rights through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels and ignore climate change," Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children's Trust, one of three groups supporting the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
The state of Montana (northwestern United States) has announced that it will appeal. The verdict is "absurd," a spokeswoman for Montana's attorney general said. "Montana residents can't be blamed for changing the climate — even witnesses invited by plaintiffs agree that our state has no impact on the global climate."
A national first
Montana has just over a million people, but fossil fuels extracted, consumed, transported and processed via and within the state generate about 166 million tons of CO2 per year, as much as Argentina's emissions, according to the verdict Monday.
The trial was held in mid-June in Helena, the capital of Montana. The complainants told how their health, well-being, or the finances of their families were affected.
The main plaintiff, Rikki Held, 22, whose family owns a ranch in eastern Montana, cited a wildfire that destroyed power lines and cut power to their ranch for a month, causing cattle deaths because it was no longer possible to pump water. "Rikki feels stress and despair" and suffers "economic damage" because of climate change, the verdit says. "Every additional tonne of greenhouse gases emitted exacerbates the damage suffered by the plaintiffs," he added.
This is the first time that the constitution of a US state has been invoked in court to attack local authorities on a climate issue. The decision could have significant implications for future cases. Many similar lawsuits have been filed across the country – although many have been dismissed.
The plaintiffs in Montana had an advantage: an article of the local constitution clearly states that "the state and everyone shall maintain and improve a clean and healthy environment in Montana for present and future generations."
"We have proven that Gen Z is a powerful force in the fight against climate change," Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, which brings together young people committed to the cause, said in a statement.
"Thank you to these brave young people who today won a huge victory against climate change," US Senator Bernie Sanders, 81, said on social media. "It's time for the federal government to follow their lead and hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its role in the climate crisis."
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