Youth-led climate change lawsuit against Montana will be heard next year in landmark first

Montana is one of just six states that has codified environmental rights in its constitution, though there are a handful of other states whose constitutions at least mention protections but lack more stringent rules. Though the state is somewhat considered a leader in renewables used for power, with 45% of its grid operating off of them, Montana nonetheless emits 30.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and is still reliant on coal and gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal has only recently jumped from providing Montana with the largest share of its electricity generation in 2019 to being overtaken by hydropower by the end of 2020. While. it’s certainly a start, coal still accounts for enough of a portion of Montana’s energy to place in sixth among all U.S. states in output. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are hoping a positive ruling further puts an end to coal production in the state and that the case can influence policies across the U.S. and the entire world. Regardless of outcome, a ruling in Held vs. The State of Montana would be historic by default.

No youth-led lawsuit like this has gone to trial in the U.S. and there is sadly little precedent for this kind of climate change-focused litigation. The 2015 lawsuit Juliana vs. United States filed in Oregon has yet to have trial dates set but includes 21 youth plaintiffs ranging in age from 13 to 25. The complaint was filed by Our Children’s Trust and offers similar arguments seen in Held vs. State of Montana, including that the government’s use of fossil fuels threaten the present generation as well as generations to come, thereby infringing on constitutional rights. In Juliana vs. United States’ case, it’s the U.S. constitutional right of life, liberty, and property. According to Our Children’s Trust, “the youth plaintiffs are awaiting a ruling on their Motion for Leave to File a Second Amended Complaint and the Motion to Intervene filed by 18 states, led by Alabama.” Unsurprisingly, the states not willing to face accountability for their actions include some of the worst polluters, like Texas, West Virginia, and North Dakota. In both cases, regardless of challenges, lawyers are undeterred and look forward to a greener future.

By allowing this case to proceed to trial, the court has indicated that it will not give the political branches unfettered discretion to promote a fossil fuel-based energy system if doing so is causing harm to Montana’s children and violating their constitutional rights,” Bellinger said. “A successful outcome in this case would set an important legal precedent, not just for Montana, but for other states and countries where youth are working to hold their governments accountable for protecting their fundamental rights from the ongoing climate crisis.”

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