Montana youth climate litigation win raises hopes for other US climate accountability cases

Wildfire in Montana. Montanan youth plaintiffs won a landmark climate case against the state for violating their fundamental rights.
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On Monday 14 August, a group of young people won a landmark US climate accountability lawsuit.

The Held v. State of Montana case was brought by 16 plaintiffs ranging in age from 5 to 22. In a US first, the sixteen young Montanans have held their state government to account for violating their constitutional rights to a healthy environment.

Notably, Judge Kathy Seeley found that the state of Montana had violated these fundamental rights through its fossil fuel-friendly policies. Seeley wrote that:

By prohibiting analysis of GHG0 (greenhouse gas) emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate… the MEPA (Montana Environmental Policy Act) Limitation violates Youth Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is unconstitutional on its face

Climate crisis-fueled ‘dystopian movie’

At the heart of the case was a provision within Montana’s constitution that says:

The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.

Using this obligation, Judge Seeley ruled that the plaintiffs:

Read on...

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have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system

Executive director of the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust Julia Olson represented the plaintiffs. Olson highlighted the significance of the ruling in the context of recent wildfires, such as the devastating blaze in Hawaii:

As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos

Echoing this, the youth plaintiffs said they had been harmed by the “dangerous impacts of fossil fuels and the climate crisis”, with children being “uniquely vulnerable” to its worsening impacts. 20-year-old plaintiff Claire Vlases said that:

When I think about summer, I think about smoke. It sounds like a dystopian movie, but it’s real life.

As the Canary has reported, throughout June sweltering heatwaves swept across the US. States put excessive heat warnings in place from Alabama in the southeast to Arizona in the southwest. Significantly, the climate crisis has made these conditions five times more likely.

Climate litigation on the rise

As reported by Dana Drugmand for Drilled News, the Montana case is the first successful climate accountability lawsuit in the US. However, elsewhere, citizens have effectively used climate litigation to hold climate criminals to account.

For example, citizens won a 2021 Dutch court ruling against Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell. A group of nonprofits successfully challenged Shell over its failure to align its operations with the Paris Agreement. As a result, the Dutch court ordered the company to accelerate its plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, the United Nations (UN) and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law have been monitoring the global rise in climate cases. On the 27 July, they released a report which found that the cumulative number of climate cases is two and half times higher than in 2017.

Notably, by 31 December 2022, youth plaintiffs – or those acting on their behalf – had brought 34 climate cases concerning their human rights.

In April 2021, for instance, a German constitutional court found against the government over its insufficient climate legislation. Specifically, the case highlighted how the government had failed to protect the youth plaintiffs’ “natural foundations of life”.

Compelling climate action

Significantly, the joint UN and Sabin Center report concluded that:

It has become clear – and is now recognized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – that inclusive approaches to climate litigation that also address the human rights of the most vulnerable groups in society can contribute in meaningful ways to compel governments and corporate actors to pursue more ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation goals.

In other words, climate litigation has become a crucial tool in the fight against the climate crisis. Across the world, it is empowering citizens to hold their governments and corporations to account for their inaction.

In July, the Canary reported on a US county taking big oil to task for the the 2021 Pacific Northwest Heat Dome disaster. What’s more, the UN and Sabin Center report also highlighted how the US accounts for the highest number of climate lawsuits. US citizens and organisations alone had filed over 1500 cases.

As such, the Montanan court win has set a precedent for communities throughout the country. Importantly, it sends the message that the public can bring climate litigation against the powerful actors violating their rights and destroying the planet. Perhaps more vitally, it also shows that they can win.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse.

Feature image via CGP Grey/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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