A landmark legal decision has overwhelmingly justified every human being’s right to a healthy environment. The huge victory by young climate activists in Montana is a win for young people all over the world whose future will undeniably be shaped by the effects of climate change. The case, Held v Montana, is the first youth-led climate trial in the United States with 16 plaintiffs, aged 5 to 22, accusing the state of Montana of violating their right to a healthy environment. Each plaintiff testified to how melting glaciers and wildfire smoke had a mental and physical toll; their claims were supported by medical practitioners’ testimonies using proven research on how the more young people experience climate change induced trauma, the more likely they are to suffer from heart disease or diabetes as an adult.
Held v Montana was the first case to reach trial since the non-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust first filed their lawsuit in 2020. After 3 years of courtroom haggling, the fight has proven well worth it. The case is the first constitutional climate trial in American history alleging the state of Montana’s pro-fossil fuel policies contributed to climate change.
Montana is one of a few states with a constitutional provision that gives the right to a clean environment.
Presiding over the case was Judge Kathy Seeley whose final decision declared Montana’s fossil fuel-promoting Montana laws unconstitutional and that Montana’s oil and gas policies infringe on young people’s constitutional rights to a safe environment.
The case is a game changer, but signals more intense reactions by lawmakers backed by fossil fuel industries. In May, Montana legislators (Montana Republicans control two-thirds of the state House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office) wanting to crush the Children’s Trust case, rolled back environmental protections in bills sent to Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. The new laws made it more difficult for the state to act on global warming in hopes it would render the youth lawsuit meaningless.
The politically motivated anti-climate change legislative dance can be expected to play out repeatedly in other state legislatures country wide. An appeal of Held v. Montana by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is expected to be filed with the Montana Supreme Court.
Our Children’s Trust is representing youth in pending cases in four other states. With the destructive wild fires that consumed Lahaina, Hawaii, the case brought by Hawaii youth plaintiffs is timely and set to go to trial, possibly as soon as this fall. The other states with cases brought by youth are in Virginia, Utah and Florida.