Judge rules in favor of Montana youths in landmark climate decision
By: Kate Selig - The Washington Post
‘This is a monumental decision,’ said a lawyer for the young plaintiffs. The ruling could influence how judges handle similar cases in other states.
In the first ruling of its kind nationwide, a Montana state court decided Monday
in favor of young people who alleged the state violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels.
The court determined that a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act has harmed the state’s environment and the young plaintiffs by preventing Montana from considering the climate impacts of energy projects. The provision is accordingly unconstitutional, the court said.
“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. “More rulings like this will certainly come.”
The sweeping win, one of the strongest decisions on climate change ever issued by a court, could energize the environmental movement and usher in a wave of cases aimed at advancing action on climate change, experts say.
The ruling — which invalidates the provision blocking climate considerations — also represents a rare victory for climate activists who have tried to use the courts to push back against government policies and industrial activities they say are harming the planet. In this case, it involved 16 young Montanans, ranging in age from 5 to 22, who brought the nation’s first constitutional and first youth-led climate lawsuit to go to trial. Those youths are elated by the decision, according to Our Children’s Trust.
Though the cumulative number of climate cases around the world has more than doubled in the last five years, youth-led lawsuits in the United States have faced an uphill battle. Already, at least 14 of these cases have been dismissed, according to a July report from the U.N. Environment Program and Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. The report said about three-quarters of the approximately 2,200 ongoing or concluded cases were filed before courts in the United States.
But the number of successes internationally is growing, as is the diversity of those taking these cases to court, including a rise in legal action brought by youths, women’s groups, local communities and Indigenous people. Of the cases that have been decided, more than half have had outcomes favorable to climate action, according to a 2023 report from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
The Montana case will face an appeal to the state Supreme Court, Emily Flower, a spokesperson for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R), confirmed Monday. She decried the ruling as “absurd” and said Montanans cannot be blamed for changing the climate.
“Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states,” said Flower. “It should have been here as well.”Despite the track record of dismissals for youth-led climate cases in the United States, experts said the Montana youths had an advantage in the state’s constitution, which guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment.” Montana, a major coal producer, is home to the largest recoverable coal reserves in the country. The plaintiff’s attorneys say the state has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project.
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