Thanks to the courage of 16 young plaintiffs and a state constitution that provides some of the most expansive rights in the nation, Montana has become a significant site in the battle for global climate justice. Our constitutional right to “a clean and healthful environment” was the strategic linchpin of the Held v. Montana youth climate lawsuit, essential to the youths’ victory.
The right to a clean and healthful environment was established largely in response to the massive ecological damage inflicted by the Copper Kings of the 1800s and the industrialists who continued their corrupt tactics throughout the 20th century. As they degraded Montana’s land, water, air, and fundamental rights for over a century, a wellspring of grassroots democracy sprang up in response, leading to a new state constitution drafted in 1972 by everyday Montanans (not politicians) asserting expanded rights and freedoms. Roughly 50 years later during Held v Montana, our right to a clean and healthful environment tackled the very problem it was drafted to confront – the complicity and collusion between legislators, government agencies, and powerful industrial business interests.
The plaintiffs in Held alleged that the state of Montana violated their right to a clean and healthful environment by prohibiting state agencies from considering climate pollution while conducting environmental reviews. During a week-long trial this past June, plaintiffs and experts described the physical, mental, and emotional harm caused by climate change. Roughly two months later on August 14, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in favor of the youth, invalidating Montana laws that promote fossil fuels and ignore climate impacts.
Seeley’s ruling is far-reaching and comprehensive, setting an important legal precedent as the first successful case of its kind in history. At least three U.S. states have rights similar to our right to a clean and healthful environment with several more working to enshrine such rights. Held serves as an important legal catalyst and moral victory for the nation, but it’s also an important policy victory here in Montana, provided it withstands a legal appeal from Attorney General Austin Knudsen. That appeal is expected to be settled next year by the Montana Supreme Court. Given the incompetence and ineptitude of the state’s legal defense during the Held trial itself, one can only guess its Supreme Court appeal will be an uphill battle as well. (It turns out corrupt laws defended by junk science and callous obstinance do not make for great legal strategies.)
Despite the looming appeal, the current law of the land requires state agencies to analyze climate pollution, and we’ve recently seen the state make early moves. A series of hastily organized “listening sessions’’ were organized across the state in October by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) seeking public input about how best to analyze climate pollution.
As always, Northern Plains members showed up in force to these listening sessions, demanding that state climate analysis be robust and consider the carbon footprint of the entire life cycle of any project. Members also insisted that any changes to environmental laws in Montana must expand citizen rights to know about and participate in decisions, citing a steady erosion of citizen rights in favor of industry interests.
Right now, it is too early to tell exactly how Held will impact fossil fuel projects like Signal Peak Energy’s proposed expansion of its Bull Mountain coal mine or NorthWestern’s methane-fired power plant under construction in Laurel. What we do know is that Northern Plains will use the same rights that these youth plaintiffs so courageously asserted and re-invigorated to defend our communities and protect our climate. As always, we’ll bring the same passion, intensity, and tenacity that we’ve summoned since our founding, the same year the new Montana Constitution was ratified.