In a Montana lawsuit set to go to trial Monday, 16 teenage plaintiffs and their attorneys seek to set precedent over whether state law protects a constitutional right to a healthy, livable climate. It’s the first such trial in the United States, and lawyers around the world are watching to see if it adds to the few verdicts that have established the government’s obligation to protect civilians from climate change. The lawsuit follows legislation in the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature that limits local government efforts to promote renewable energy and increases the cost of oil, gas and coal projects challenged in court. . The environmental company behind the action aims to show how climate change is harming young people today and in the future by registering plaintiffs aged 5 to 22. The smoke, heat and dryness of the wildfires have had an impact on the physical and mental health of residents, according to their testimonies.
The plaintiffs’ youth does not affect the legal difficulties, and experts say the case will not impact Montana’s pro-fossil fuel policies. However, plaintiffs’ attorneys expect to slam state authorities for oil, gas and coal development during two weeks of testimony to send a strong message to neighboring states. Plaintiff Grace Gibson-Snyder, 19, said she is feeling the effects of global warming as wildfires frequently blanket her town of Missoula in deadly smoke and river levels drop. Gibson-Snyder, a high school environmental activist, was a plaintiff. Other young plaintiffs include members of Native American tribes, a family of water-dependent ranchers and people with health conditions like asthma that make them more vulnerable to wildfires. Farmers whose margins have been pinched by drought and catastrophic weather events like the Yellowstone National Park floods last year can be used by plaintiffs and experts to prove that locals have been denied the pristine environment promised by the Montana Constitution.
Montana’s “tiny” greenhouse gas emissions will be downplayed by state experts. Lawyers for Republican Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen have twice tried to dismiss the lawsuit on procedural grounds. The state Supreme Court rejected the latest attempted dismissal on June 6, saying judges were unwilling to intervene just days before a trial that has taken “literally years to prepare.” Montana’s exceptionally protective 1972 Constitution, which requires a “clean and healthy environment,” may have helped the lawsuit progress. Only Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York have equivalent constitutional environmental provisions.
State District Judge Kathy Seeley narrowed the issue significantly in previous findings. Seeley indicated that she would not demand policy changes on climate change if the plaintiffs won. The judge could issue a “declaratory judgment” declaring that the officials violated the state constitution. Environmental law expert Jim Huffman said it would set a new legal precedent for courts intervening in legislative and executive cases. Montana’s Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1971 and revised several times, requires state agencies to balance resource development with environmental protection. This year, lawmakers changed the policy to exclude greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts from environmental assessments unless the federal government regulates carbon dioxide. Jonathan Adler, a professor of environmental law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the lawsuit will depend on how vigorously the state challenges research into greenhouse gas emissions. If the state does not refute this science, the lawsuit will consider whether the courts can order governments to fight climate change. At the age of 16, Gibson-Snyder, a student at Yale University, had to use the legal system to change things.