Montana youth ask judge for historic order in climate trial

By Clark Mindock

(Reuters) – A lawyer for 16 young people on Tuesday asked a Montana judge for a historic order declaring the state’s pro-fossil fuel policies violate their rights, wrapping up arguments in the first youth-led U.S. climate change lawsuit to make it to trial.

Judge Kathy Seeley in Helena took the case under consideration on Tuesday after hearing from 12 of the plaintiffs during the course of the trial who described how the state’s policies are exacerbating the climate crisis, impacting their health and threatening their futures.

Nate Bellinger, an attorney for the young people, said during his closing statement on Tuesday that Seeley should issue a judgment that the state’s ongoing approval of fossil fuel projects violates a state constitutional guarantee to a “clean and healthful environment.”

He said that “future generations will look back on this historic trial.”

Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell countered that the courts are no place to set climate policy, and that the plaintiffs hadn’t proved that Montana’s relatively small emissions can be blamed for a global crisis.

“This case has received national attention because it has been billed or perceived as a referendum on climate change generally,” he said. But “this is not supposed to be a town hall or popularity contest.”

The trial began on June 12, three years after the youth plaintiffs, now between the ages of 5 and 22, filed their lawsuit. It is one of several youth-led constitutional climate cases pending in courts across the U.S.

The youth plaintiffs claim the state’s ongoing permitting of things like coal and gas exacerbates the climate crisis, despite the state having an affirmative duty under a 1972 amendment to the Montana constitution to protect and improve the environment.

Attorneys for the state said during the trial that the youth had failed to target a specific policy upon which real relief could be granted. They said the primary policy targeted by the lawsuit, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, is a “procedural” law that does not mandate specific outcomes.

The trial included testimony from the youth plaintiffs who claimed the state’s policies are contributing to extreme heat and drought, shrinking the state’s famed glaciers and worsening wildfires.

“When I think about summer, I think about smoke. It sounds like a dystopian movie, but its real life,” plaintiff Claire Vlases, 20, testified last week.

During the state’s defense, government officials said that agencies like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality don’t have the authority to deny lawful permits, and said that a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs likely wouldn’t change that.

The plaintiffs had originally sought an injunction ordering the state to develop a remedial plan or policies to reduce emissions. Seeley rejected that bid in 2021, since she said it would require the court to make policy decisions better left to other branches of government.

The case is Held v. Montana, Montana First Judicial District Court, No. CDV-2020-307.

For the youth: Nate Bellinger and Julia Olson of Our Children’s Trust; Roger Sullivan of McGarvey Law; and Melissa Hornbein of the Western Environmental Law Center

For the state: Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell of the Montana Department of Justice; and Mark Stermitz of Crowley Fleck

Read more:

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(Reporting by Clark Mindock)