A judge in Montana ruled on Monday that young people in the state have a constitutional right to a healthful environment, finding in a landmark case that the state’s failure to consider climate change when evaluating new projects was causing harm.
The case, brought by a group of young Montana residents ranging in age from 5 to 22, is the first of its kind to go to trial in the United States. While the state has contended that Montana’s emissions are minuscule when considered against the rest of the globe’s, the plaintiffs argued that the state must do more to consider how emissions are contributing to droughts, wildfires and other growing risks to a state that cherishes a pristine outdoors.
In her ruling, Kathy Seeley, a district court judge, found that the state’s emissions “have been proven to be a substantial factor” in affecting the climate. Laws that limited the ability of regulators to consider climate effects were unconstitutional, she ruled.
“This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy and for our climate,” said Julia Olson, the executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which brought the case.
The trial, which took place in June, featured testimony from climate scientists who detailed how increases in greenhouse gas emissions as a result of human activity were already causing health and environmental damage, and how those effects were likely to accelerate unless action was taken. Many of the young plaintiffs testified about effects they had witnessed — extreme weather events that threaten family ranching, warmed rivers and streams that harm fish, wildfire smoke that worsens asthma and disruptions to nature that interfere with Indigenous traditions.
Montana has a long history of mining that dates back to its founding, and one of the targets of the lawsuit is a law backed by Republican lawmakers that prohibits state regulators from considering the climate effects of new mining projects.
But the state also has deep environmental traditions. In 1972, with widespread popular support for more protection of the state’s lands, the state’s Constitution was amended to say that the state should “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
Montana is one of only a handful of states to establish such clear environmental rights in its constitution.
Environmental advocates have hoped that a favorable ruling in Montana could put pressure not only on state leaders but also on other courts where similar litigation is pending. Our Children’s Trust, which is helping guide the Montana case, won a preliminary victory in June when a judge ruled that a case against the federal government in Oregon could go to trial.