Montana climate case delivers win for youth, science, and the environment

By Peter Gleick | August 16, 2023

Montana youth climate trial plaintiffsPlaintiffs in the case Held v. Montana en route to the courthouse during the historic climate trial. (Photo: Our Children's Trust/Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0)

In a remarkable decision in a Montana District Court this week, a judge ruled that human-caused climate change is real, happening, and poses a clear and present threat to human health and the health of the environment. The case brought by 16 young people challenged the constitutionality of provisions in Montana’s Environmental Policy Act that forbade the state from considering the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions or climate change in environmental reviews, thus perpetuating a fossil-fuel based future. After hearing testimony from climate, health, and energy experts, from the youths themselves about how climate changes were already harming them, as well as state officials and climate deniers, the judge ruled definitively in favor of the youth, science, and future generations.

I’ve now read the decision in the Montana climate trial and I have some thoughts.

It is a remarkable document, strong and detailed, supporting the science and facts of human-caused climate change as well as the consequences for Montana’s citizens and ecosystem, present and future. It calls the state’s failure to consider the consequences of climate change in environmental reviews an unconstitutional violation of Montana’s Constitutional provision, Article IX, Section 1, which says “[t]he state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

The testimonies of climate scientists and other experts helped set the factual basis for the case. These experts, including a former United States Geological Survey scientist, university professors (including several from Montana), and an author of the Nobel Prize-winning report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, were all deemed “informative and credible.”

“The science is clear that there are catastrophic harms to the natural environment of Montana and Plaintiffs and future generations of the State due to anthropogenic climate change,” judge Kathy Seeley wrote. “The degradation to Montana’s environment, and the resulting harm to Plaintiffs, will worsen if the State continues ignoring GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and climate change.” The ruling also explicitly acknowledged the reality of climate change and the strength of the science, saying that “[a]nthropogenic climate change is impacting, degrading, and depleting Montana’s environment and natural resources…” and that “[c]limate change impacts result in hardship to every sector of Montana’s economy, including recreation, agriculture, and tourism.”

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The judge also noted that the state failed to challenge or refute testimony that “climate change is a critical threat to public health” and that the young plaintiffs “have been and will continue to be harmed by the State’s disregard of GHG pollution and climate change.”

The testimony of climate deniers, minimizers, or delayers, including Terry Anderson, was either criticized, or completely ignored. Seeley described Anderson’s testimony as “not well-supported, contained errors, and was not given weight by the Court.” Similarly, the testimony of Judith Curry, who minimizes the impacts of climate change, and disputes its severity, causes, and who has challenged the central premise of this case—the right to a ‘safe and stable climate’—ultimately wasn’t used or considered useful. According to the Daily Montanan, Curry reportedly charged the state of Montana at least $61,600 to prepare testimony, but Montana’s lawyers chose not to call her to testify. On her blog, Curry has boldly asserted that the Montana state attorneys were not competent, and claimed, “If I had been cross-examining these [climate science] witnesses, I would have shredded their testimony.”

Among the judge’s ruling were clear findings of fact rejecting the arguments of climate deniers and accepting that humans are changing the climate, climate changes are accelerating, climate changes are already worsening the environment in Montana, and that human health, recreation, agriculture, and tourism are being affected. A long section documents the threats to Montana’s freshwater systems, fisheries, glaciers, snowpack, streams, and wildlife, noting “Montana’s water resources are critically important to Youth Plaintiffs and all Montana citizens and to many people beyond the State’s borders. Montanans must have a dependable supply of clean freshwater.”

Based on its findings of fact, the court ruled that the youth plaintiffs have proven injury “resulting from the State’s failure to consider GHGs and climate change, including injuries to their physical and mental health, homes and property, recreational, spiritual, and aesthetic interests, tribal and cultural traditions, economic security, and happiness.”

A key area of dispute during the hearing was whether Montana’s emissions—a small fraction of global emissions—were important enough to matter. The state argued that cutting Montana’s emissions were unimportant and would have no beneficial effect on any harms Montana’s citizens might experience. This argument was definitively rejected with the court acknowledging that every bit of greenhouse gas emissions mattered: “Every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries.” These injuries “will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change.” This finding is vitally important—eviscerating the potential argument of any state, country, corporation, or other actor that their small portion of emissions don’t matter or need to be cut.

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Ultimately, the decision says that Montana’s Environmental Policy Act, “by prohibiting analysis of GHG emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate, as well as how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana Constitution… violates Youth Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is unconstitutional on its face.”

The long-term impacts of this court ruling are uncertain. Montana state officials will now have to evaluate climate risks when making decisions about energy policy, but there is no guarantee it will lead them to make actual changes in their energy plans and developments. On the strongly positive side, however, the clear acceptance of the facts of climate change and the strength of climate science will make future attempts in court cases to dismiss climate science untenable. The case provides a roadmap for how to present the science, and clearly establishes the threat of climate harm to humans, future generations, and the environment, which will make it easier to do so in future cases. While today only a few other states have “green” provisions in their constitutions protecting citizen’s rights to a “clean and healthful environment for present and future generations”—including Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Illinois—more than a dozen others are considering them. As a result, this ruling may turn out to be a powerful precedent for other climate cases now pending or being considered. For readers interested, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law maintains a database of current climate court cases, and the number is likely to increase in the future.

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