A Montana judge will hear arguments in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit on Monday that will decide whether the state’s contribution to climate change violates its Constitution, which explicitly guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment.”
In Held v. Montana, which was brought forward by 16 Montana youth as young as five, plaintiffs argue that state legislators have put the interests of the state’s fossil fuel industry over their climate future. Legal experts say that if plaintiffs win, the case could be used to bolster climate change efforts in other states.
The so-called Treasure State is home to legendary landmarks such as Yellowstone National Park, but also has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the country. Montana legislators have continuously enacted measures to benefit the fossil fuel industry, as Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a new law in May that bars regulators like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality from looking at the climate impacts of proposed projects that should have environmental reviews, like coal mines or power plants.
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Lawyers representing the state asked for the case to be partially dismissed after the passage of that law, which repealed part of Montana’s energy policy that the lawsuit sought to challenge. But District Court Judge Kathy Seeley denied the state’s request.
Plaintiffs plan on testifying about the detrimental impact climate change has had on their lives as temperatures increase globally.
“It’s hard to watch the things that I love get depleted slowly, like fishing with my dad,” Badge Busse, a 15-year-old plaintiff, told Montana Public Radio. “It’s like, my main way to hang out with him and my brother.”
A 2016 Environmental Protection Agency report found that climate change over the next few decades would likely “decrease the availability of water in Montana, affect agricultural yields, and further increase the risk of wildfires.” Montana’s glaciers have also been melting rapidly, with the EPA saying that several glaciers are likely to disappear by 2030 if no change is made.
The youth are represented by Our Children’s Trust, which has filed climate lawsuits on behalf of American youth in every state since 2010. This is the first case in Montana to go to trial, and is set to last two weeks.
Experts previously told ABC News they are skeptical about what the courts can mandate. For instance, if Montana youth win, Judge Seeley would only be issuing a “declaratory judgment,” meaning that the victory would set a new legal precedent saying that the state Constitution was violated, but require no specific action by the state government.
Jonathan Adler, environmental law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland said he isn’t sure if the court can tell the government to address climate change. “It really pushes the boundaries of what courts are capable of and effective at addressing,” he said.
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