First children's climate trial kicks off: Youths take Montana officials to court
The first children's climate trial in US history convened Monday, as 16 individuals from claim the state's continuous use of contributed to the climate crisis. The plaintiffs, who were between the ages of 2 and 18 when they filed the lawsuit in 2020, want Judge Kathy Seeley in Helena to declare Montana officials violated their constitutional right. The lawsuit describes 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.' If the youths win the case, the state legislature may have to Roger Sullivan, an attorney for the young plaintiffs, painted a picture of the costs and consequences of Montana's energy policies, which he said violate a state constitutional provision that guarantees a right to a 'clean and healthful environment,' during his opening statement at the two-week bench trial in state court. The historic hearing will run for 10 days at the Lewis and Clark County District Courthouse. Sullivan said during the hearing that Montana's ongoing permitting for polluting fuels like coal and gas is contributing to a global crisis that is shrinking the state s glaciers and making its rivers run dry, and argued that the young people he represents are suffering psychological, health and economic damages as a result. 'This case is about the equal rights of children and their need now for extraordinary protection from the extraordinary dangers of fossil fuel pollution and the climate crisis that their state is exposing them to,' Sullivan said. Attorney Mark Stermitz, representing the state, said the trial will include 'lots of emotions' and 'lots of assumptions, accusations, speculation and prognostication and, notably, fear' about the future. But he said the reality is 'far more boring' than what the youth have claimed. Montana's greenhouse gas emissions are declining, Stermitz said. And the youth are not challenging policies that would, if invalidated, meaningfully change the state's impact on the climate, he continued in the courtroom. Attorneys for the state had repeatedly attempted to have the case tossed before trial, arguing climate change is an issue best addressed through the political process, not in courtrooms. The plaintiffs claim the state's 'systemic authorization, permitting, encouragement and facilitation' of fossil fuels exacerbates the climate crisis, despite what they call an affirmative duty under a 1972 amendment to the Montana Constitution to protect and improve the environment for past and future generations. They 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 among several constitutional climate cases on behalf of youth plaintiffs across the U.S. and is the first of those to head to trial. The 2020 lawsuit included details from each plaintiff, describing how the climate crisis has personally impacted each plaintiff. For example, Rikki Held, who was 18 at the time of the filing, included a story about her family-owned cattle ranch. One of the ranches is the Powder River, that her family relies on 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 claims. The youngest of the group, Nathaniel, was two at the time of the filing. Nathaniel has respiratory issues that cause frequent illnesses. The document claimed the climate crisis is increasing the length and severity of Montana's wildfire season, threatening the young boy's health. The document continues to explain that due to the increased wildfires, Nathaniel spends much of his time indoors rather than outside enjoying nature. Held, now 22, said Monday: 'I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part. You can t just blow it off and do nothing about it Montana is rich in both fossil fuels and renewable resources, but in 2021, coal-fired power plants produced 43 percent of Montana's electricity, compared with hydropower at 41 percent and wind power at 12 percent, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). Held spoke about getting heat alerts on her phone for temperatures up to 110 degrees and about a fire that burned power lines and left her ranch powerless for a month, meaning they couldn t pump water for their cattle. 'It's stressful,' Held said, her eyes welling with tears, when asked her feelings about climate change. 'That s my life, and my home is there, and it impacts the wellbeing of myself, my family, my community.' In opening arguments, Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said that the state had little control over global emissions. He said the harms alleged by Held and the other plaintiffs could not be traced to specific actions by state officials. 'Montana s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference,' Russell said. 'Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana s role to that of a spectator.' Russell also suggested that the plaintiffs, backed by a well-financed Oregon law firm, had exaggerated the case's importance, which he said was 'far more boring than the plaintiffs would make it out to be.'