Judge rules in favor of Montana youths in climate change hearing

Judge sides with activists in world-first climate change trial: State of Montana violated kids’ rights by ignoring global warming, court rules

  • Youths claimed Montana violated their human rights to a healthful environment
  • The group did not seek a payout but is asking for better climate legislation 
  • READ MORE: Here are some of the stories that led to the ruling

A judge has ruled in favor of youths who claimed Montana’s use of fossil fuels contributed to the climate crisis and harmed their health.

The ‘monumental decision’ was based on the state’s policy in evaluating requests for fossil fuel permits – which does not allow agencies to assess the effects of greenhouse gas emissions – was found unconstitutional.

The youths, aged five to 22, did not seek a payout following a win but wanted defendants to ‘bring the state energy system into constitutional compliance.’

Experts said the plaintiffs had Montana’s constitution on their side, which likely helped with the ruling.

Article Nine reads: ‘The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.’

A judge has ruled in favor of youths who claimed Montana’s use of fossil fuels contributed to the climate crisis and harmed their health. The hearing lasted for five days in June

The trial convened in June, and plaintiffs spent five days sharing stories about injuries they claimed came from climate change and how their homes have been negatively impacted. 

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley wrote in the ruling that ‘Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury’ to the youth. 

Now the ruling is in the hands of the state Legislature, which has to determine how to bring the policy into compliance. 

That leaves slim chances for immediate change in a fossil fuel-friendly state where Republicans dominate the statehouse.

Montana has the nation’s largest recoverable coal reserves – over 74 billion tons – nearly one-third of the US total, according to MBMG Coal Program.

The state also ranks sixth in coal production, with about 30 million tons produced annually from 6 mines.

In 2022, coal generated 42 percent of Montana’s in-state electricity generation, but the resource supplied more than half until 2016.

This is compared with hydropower at 41 percent and wind power at 12 percent, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). 

Pictured are several of the plaintiffs on June 12 in Montana – the first day of the hearing

Part of the hearing heard the plaintiff’s attorneys state Montana has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project, The Washington Post reports.

Judge Seeley heard from a 15-year-old plaintiff who has asthma.

He told the court how he felt like ‘a prisoner in my own home’ when isolated with COVID during intense wildfire smoke, which he said resulted from climate change.

Rikki Held, the 22-year-old plaintiff, has been vocal about her family-owned cattle ranch, which she claims was also destroyed by the climate crisis.

Held said her family ranch relied on the nearby Powder River to grow crops and hydrate cattle.

The river dried up in 2007, and then in the spring of 2017, ‘abnormally high temperatures linked to the climate crisis caused the frozen river to melt at a rapid rate and flood,’ the lawsuit claimed.

The state argued that even if Montana completely stopped producing carbon dioxide, it would not affect a global scale because states and countries worldwide contribute to the amount of C02 in the atmosphere. 

The Montana attorney general’s office will appeal Seeley’s ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, said in a statement.

‘This ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiffs’ attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial,’ Flower said. ‘Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. The State will appeal.’

The lawsuit, filed in March 2020, described how children are more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis, noting it ‘harms their physical and psychological health and safety, interferes with family and cultural foundations and integrity, and causes economic deprivations.’

Rikki Held – 18 years old at the time of filing

Rikki Held told the court how climate change had impacted her family’s ranch

Held is from Broadus, Montana, living with her family on their 7,000 acre-ranch. 

Her family’s livelihood largely depends upon the cattle they raise on the ranch and sell, grow, and harvest crops.

The Powder River runs through Held’s family ranch, which has water rights to the river.

The lawsuit states that changes in the climate increased variability in the water levels in the river. In 2007 the river dried up. 

‘In the spring of 2017, abnormally high temperatures linked to the climate crisis caused the frozen river to melt at a rapid rate and flood,’ the lawsuit reads.

The rising temperatures in Broadus are also attributed to an uptick in Bluetongue Virus, a viral disease of ruminants transmitted by tiny biting midges, or Culicoides. 

Held’s family has found diseased deer and carcasses on their ranch. 

‘There have been a number of wildfires on the ranch. In or around the summer of 2012, a large wildfire swept the ranch and burned approximately 70 miles of area powerlines causing Held and her family to lose electricity and power for approximately one month,’ the lawsuit claims.

Lander B. and Badge B. – 15 and 12 years old at the time of filing

 Lander B. and Badge B are brothers who were 15 and 12 years old in 2020 when the lawsuit was filed

The brothers live in Kalispell, Montana, where hunting and fishing is a way of life.

Their family depends on the wildlife as ‘their source of meat and protein,’ the lawsuit states.

The brothers stated that the climate crisis had caused abnormal low water levels and high water temperatures, leading to decreased fish.

‘Lander and Badge recall closures on the Flathead River and Blackfoot River, among others, which have prohibited them from fishing,’ reads the lawsuit.

Then the increased heat and wildfires that plagued Kalispell diminished the family’s food supply.

‘During the summer of 2018, a wildfire near Lander and Badge’s home forced their family to prepare to evacuate,’ according to the suit.

‘While the wildfire ultimately spared their property, Lander and Badge fear that, as climate destabilization makes wildfires more frequent and destructive, their home could be damaged or destroyed, further threatening their safety and security.’ 

Sariel S. – 17 years old at the time of filing

Sariel S blames dry conditions that sparked wildfires on climate change

Sariel lives on the Flathead Indian Reservation and is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Her testimony in the lawsuit stated that climate change threatens her culture.

‘Sariel is worried that she and her community’s activities, practices, and beliefs of cultural significance will be entirely lost if climate change continues,’ reads the lawsuit.

‘The threat of losing her community’s important connection to the environment and losing her culture because of climate change is extremely stressful on Sariel and her community.’

Her statement described how a lack of snowpack in recent years had impacted the Flathead Reservation, which relies on snow runoff to increase water levels.

The lack of runoff has also contributed to drying conditions that have led to vicious wildfires.

Kian T – 14 years old at the time of filing

Kian lives with his family on 27 acres in Bigfork, Montana and claims the climate crisis has caused warmer winters and increased insect activity that is destroying vegetation.

Kian lives with his family on 27 acres in Bigfork, Montana and claims the climate crisis has caused warmer winters and increased insect activity that is destroying vegetation

He enjoys fishing the Flathead and Missouri Rivers, where he catches rainbow and cutthroat trout.

But the climate impacts have decreased fishing opportunities for Kian as the rivers become warmer and hold less water in the summer. He has canceled fishing trips due to warm water temperatures and low flows.

Kian also lives near Glacier National Park, a 1,583-square-mile wilderness area in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, with glacier-carved peaks and valleys running to the Canadian border. 

The lawsuit claims the park’s forests are dying, glaciers are melting, and snowpack is decreasing.

Georgianna F. (‘Georgi’) –  17 years old at the time of filing 

Georgi lives in Bozeman, Montana, and is a competitive Nordic skier who trains 11 months of the year.

‘Georgi’s ability to compete and participate in Nordic skiing has been directly impacted by climate disruption,’ reads the lawsuit.

Georgi lives in Bozeman, Montana, and is a competitive Nordic skier who trains 11 months of the year

‘With less snowfall in the winter, and the snow melting at rapid rates, Georgi’s training season is curtailed and has overall shortened in length.’

There was not enough snow for Georgi to train until January, when historically, it has always been November when her training would start. 

Georgi has also experienced wildfires in the air, which limits her time outdoors. 

‘The smoke makes it so Georgi cannot fully breathe or train at a high-intensity level; she is increasingly worried about the long-term effects that the exposure to heavy smoke while training has on her health and respiratory system,’ the suit states.

Kathryn Grace S. (‘Grace’) – 16 years old at the time of filing

Grace lives in Missoula, Montana, near the Clark Fork River, which has been plagued by low water levels due to higher temperatures, decreasing snowpack and drought.

‘I feel an overpowering obligation to do everything I can to prevent climate change,’ said Grace

‘Flood warnings have become more common due to the dangerously high water levels in the spring, caused by hot weather causing rapid snowmelt,’ the lawsuit reads.

‘Because of the climate crisis, Grace’s access to the Clark Fork River for recreational activities has been increasingly limited and impaired, thus limiting her ability to enjoy activities important to her health and family.’

The document continues to explain that in the summers of 2017 and 2018, the smoke from wildfires impacted Grace’s ability to go outside and enjoy outdoor activities, placing her safety, health, and well-being at risk. 

‘The smoke triggered coughing, as well as throat irritation,’ reads the document.

‘The extreme heat and wildfire smoke adversely impact Grace’s ability to play competitive soccer and has led to fewer soccer practices.

‘Witnessing climate change impacts occur around her is devastating emotionally to Grace and she is anxious about her future and fearful that her generation may not survive the climate crisis.’

Eva L. -14 years old at the time of filing

Eva is based in Livingston, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park.

She enjoys many activities outdoors, which are central to her health and foundational to her family, including backpacking, climbing, and riding bikes; she also enjoys swimming and rafting on the Yellowstone River. 

‘I know that older generations in Montana didn’t experience what my generation is having to live through, and it’s not fair,’ Eva said

In the summer of 2017, wildfire smoke from several fires in Montana created very poor air quality in Livingston, harming Eva’s health and security. 

From June to October, Eva could not enjoy the high-intensity activities she usually enjoys outdoors, which are an integral part of her lifestyle and family life. 

Eva often felt ill that summer as the thick layer of smoke lingered in Livingston. She suffered from eye and nose irritation, a sore throat, and headaches. 

‘In May 2018, all of the rivers, tributaries, and streams near Eva’s home flooded when higher than average temperatures rapidly melted the snowpack – an event that was called ‘the Tsunami of 2018,” the lawsuit reads.

‘The Shields River in Shields Valley flooded and the bridge that crosses the Shields River near Eva’s house was severely damaged.’

Eva said: ‘I know that older generations in Montana didn’t experience what my generation is having to live through, and it’s not fair.’ 

 Mica K. – 11 years old at the time of filing

Mica was 11 years old when he joined the lawsuit, explaining ‘I became a plaintiff because I could see how the negative impacts of climate change were harming me and my daily life, and I was learning that the dangers of climate change would keep getting worse as I grow older.’ 

Mica was 11 years old when he joined the lawsuit

Rising temperatures due to climate disruption have made it difficult for Mica to recreate outdoors and participate in the activities he enjoys, which are essential to his health, development, and overall well-being. 

Mica suffers from headaches, fatigue, and eye irritation because of the increase in wildfires and smoke, direct impacts on his physical health and safety, indirect psychological impacts and behavioral issues when he must stay indoors during the summer. 

Wildfires and smoke during the summer of 2017 forced him to stay inside for six weeks in August and September.

‘On August 1, 2019, a forest fire started approximately one mile away from Mica’s house, reads the lawsuit.

‘Mica watched the helicopters and firefighters work to prevent the fire from spreading. 

‘The event was distressing to Mica, and he feared the fire would destroy his home.’

Olivia V. – 16 years old at the time of filing

Olivia suffers from asthma, which has been worse due to climate change, she claimed

Olivia lives in Missoula, Montana and has long banged the drum on climate change.

‘She has been actively involved with the local Sunrise Movement and helped organize a climate strike in Missoula in or around September 2019,’ the lawsuit reads.

Olivia has exercise-induced asthma, which she was diagnosed with at 13, and is particularly vulnerable to the smoke-filled air. 

When the air is filled with wildfire smoke, Olivia feels suffocated if she spends more than five minutes outside.

‘The higher temperatures and smoke have had an impact on her asthma,’ the lawsuit reads.

‘Olivia was prescribed an inhaler at the age of 13, but, over the years, her asthma attacks have become more frequent and severe.’

















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