Young climate activists take Montana to court for its role in global warming

Jun 11, 2023, 9:09 PM | Updated: Jun 12, 2023, 3:40 pm

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Rikki Held decided to join other young plaintiffs in a lawsuit to force Montana officials to do something about climate change after watching wildfires blacken the sky over her family’s ranch, drought stress the cattle and violent floods erode the banks of a nearby river.

Held and 15 other young people finally got their day in court Monday after suing state officials three years ago for failing to take action to curb global warming. The case is the first climate change lawsuit to reach trial among dozens filed across the U.S. in the last decade.

They are trying to persuade state District Judge Kathy Seeley over a two-week trial that the state’s allegiance to fossil fuel development endangers their health and livelihoods and threatens future generations.

“I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part,” testified Held, now 22. “You can’t just blow it off and do nothing about it.”

The state court case centers on a government’s obligations to protect people against fossil fuel-friendly Montana.

A lawyer for the state sought to minimize the case’s significance and said sparsely-populated Montana produces a “minuscule” emissions on a global scale.

Held’s family ranch in southeastern Montana is near some of the planet’s most abundant coal reserves in the sprawling Powder River Basin. State officials have continued to promote that fuel for export to out of state and overseas markets despite scientific consensus that fossil fuels are largely to blame for worsening climate change.

Held spoke on Monday about getting heat alerts on her phone for temperatures up to 110 degrees and about a fire that burned power lines and left her ranch powerless for a month, meaning they couldn’t pump water for their cattle.

“It’s stressful,” Held said, her eyes welling with tears, when asked her feelings about climate change. “That’s my life, and my home is there and it impacts the wellbeing of myself, my family, my community.”

Attorneys for the state declined to question Held while she was on the stand.

Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said during opening arguments that the state had little control over global emissions. The harms alleged by Held and the other plaintiffs can’t be traced to specific actions by state officials, he said.

“Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference,” Russell said. “Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator.”

Russell also suggested that the plaintiffs, who are backed by a well-financed Oregon law firm, had exaggerated the case’s importance, which he said was “far more boring than the plaintiffs would make it out to be.”

In the three years since the lawsuit was filed, the scope of the case has been narrowed to whether Montana’s Environmental Policy Act — which requires state agencies to balance the health of the environment against resource development — is unconstitutional because it does not require officials to consider greenhouse gas emissions or their climate impacts.

Judge Seeley has said she could rule that the state’s climate change exception in its environmental law is at odds with its constitution, but she can’t tell the legislature what to do to remedy the violation.

The plaintiffs and their attorneys were cheered by supporters as they arrived outside the courthouse on Monday. Inside, Seeley’s small courtroom was packed with observers and members of the media.

Environmentalists have called the bench trial a turning point because a duty to protect citizens from climate change.

The attorneys plan to use witness testimony to document the widespread effects climate change is having on Montana’s environment and the profound consequences for its people. Climate researcher Steve Running, who with other scientists was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the topic, said Monday there was “no doubt” climate change was being felt in the state.

Running described an increasingly dire situation of wildfires getting more severe and more frequent in western North America — causing health impacts across the nation — as heavy fossil fuel use continues to churn out emissions at levels problematic for the atmosphere.

“There’s no alternative explanation,” Running said. “If we do nothing and continue with business as usual, the planet models… suggest these accelerating disturbance rates, accelerating sea level rise, accelerating glacial retreat.”

One reason the case may have made it so far in Montana is the state’s constitutional requirement that government “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment.” Only a few states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, have similar environmental protections in their constitutions.

The plaintiffs criticize state officials for their alleged failure to curb planet-warming emissions while Montana pursued oil, gas and coal development that provides jobs, tax revenue and helps meet the energy needs of people in Montana and elsewhere.

They cite smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathe; drought drying rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreation; along with reduced snowpack and shortened winter recreation seasons.

Attorney Roger Sullivan said his young clients and their families already were suffering health problems and economic losses as climate change dries up rivers and worsens wildfires. He said Montana has a obligation to protect residents from climate change under its unusually protective state constitution.

“The state has approved numerous large fossil fuel related permits that are responsible for enormous quantities of greenhouse gas emissions,” Sullivan said. “Every ton of CO2 we keep out of the air matters.”

Experts for the state are expected to counter that climate extremes have existed for centuries.

Carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burned, traps heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for the warming of the the climate. reached a record last year, according to the International Energy Agency.


Brown reported from Billings, Mont.

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Young climate activists take Montana to court for its role in global warming