Montana will have to defend itself against claims that it aided the state fossil fuel industry and, in contributing to climate change, denied its denizens their right to a healthful environment.
This is what 16 young Montanans allege with help from the legal non-profit Our Children’s Trust, the Western Environmental Law Center, and the firm McGarvey Law, which filed the lawsuit on their behalf. Federal judge Kathy Seeley will hear oral arguments for Rikki Held v. State of Montana beginning June 12 at the Helena, Montana District Court.
Prism is prioritizing coverage of the case because the trial is a monumental step for lawsuits of this kind. Our Children’s Trust—the non-profit representing the plaintiffs in Held—has filed lawsuits in all 50 states, including the landmark Juliana v. United States. However, this is the first time a youth climate lawsuit has made it to trial.
For years, the U.S. Department of Justice successfully delayed the Juliana trial. A federal judge recently put an end to the government’s stalling tactic by establishing that the plaintiffs’ evidence was entitled to be heard by the court, though a trial date has not yet been set. State officials in Hawai’i attempted to throw out its own youth climate lawsuit, Navahine F. v. Hawai’i Dept. of Transportation—a move the district court judge denied in April. Navahine will head to trial in September.
When Held was filed in March 2020, the plaintiffs ranged in age between 2 and 18 years old. Their ages underscored that, in order to be heard by the country’s political system, young people must use the court system because their age prevents them from voting or running for office—primary avenues for codifying and enacting environmental action.
But, as outlined in their legal complaint, the young Montanans were already experiencing a range of environmental harms connected to climate change. Shorter winter seasons and less snowpack meant less water for livestock, a problem for youths whose families owned and operated ranches. Longer, hotter summers portended greater wildfire risk, leading to smoke and haze that disrupted generational hunting practices and contributed to respiratory illness. The list goes on. According to the complaint, young people are specifically vulnerable to these climate impacts because of their developing bodies, nervous systems, and brains.
But young people in Montana aren’t the only ones contending with a disrupted climate system that scientists and experts link to our fossil fuel-based economy—an economic foundation built to support extraction and development that more institutions have only recently begun to realize will eventually cost trillions of dollars to maintain and operate, given the price tag of climate change repair and mitigation practices. Rather, young people across the country—not to mention the world—will soon claim adulthood in a world that looks very different from the one their parents aged into. For this reason, legal experts say these youth climate cases are uniquely positioned to offer a doorway into climate-focused legal action or court-supervised remediation. This is certainly the case with Held.
Along with Juliana and Navahine, this historic case is situated within a larger political landscape that has generally been hostile to climate action. This includes broken promises by political leaders to forestall extractive operations on public lands, claims that oil and gas operations are central to national security, and long-standing efforts to break apart natural allies of the labor, racial justice, and environmental movements.
Montana’s local landscape also presents its own challenges. In March, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte approved the repeal of the state energy policy at the center of Held. The Held complaint argues that a 2011 revision of the energy policy was “amended to explicitly promote fossil fuels and to expand the already substantial extraction and use of fossil fuels in Montana.” During the most recent legislative session, Montana representatives also approved a bill that makes it harder for people to sue the state for environmental reasons, demanding that groups pay for “the cost of compiling materials for court, post bonds for any financial losses a company may incur while the case plays out and prove they are likely to win,” according to Montana Public Radio.
The Held trial will take place over nine days, ending on June 23. Plaintiffs and climate scientists are expected to take the stand. As part of Prism’s ongoing commitment to environmental justice, we will live-tweet coverage of the trial.