In a First, Judge Orders Trial in Young People's Climate Lawsuit

State constitution requires preserving 'a clean and healthful environment'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 12, 2023 5:00 PM CDT
In a First, Judge Orders Trial in Young People's Climate Lawsuit
Montana Judge Kathy Seeley listens to arguments during a hearing Friday in Helena.   (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP)

A Montana judge on Friday said a climate change lawsuit from young people challenging the state's pro-fossil fuel policies will proceed to trial despite efforts by the state to derail the case. The upcoming trial in Helena would be the first of its kind in the US, according to experts in climate law who said the nation lags behind the rest of the world in terms of climate litigation. However, because of prior rulings that limited the scope of the Montana case, a victory for the plaintiffs would not automatically alter the state’s regulation of fossil fuels, the AP reports.

Attorneys for the 16 young plaintiffs say state officials were trying to avoid the upcoming trial when Republican lawmakers in March repealed the state's energy policy—one of two laws that the case challenges. The plaintiffs and their backers are hoping to use the two-week trial that's set to start on June 12 to highlight the dangers of fossil fuel emissions that scientists say are making climate change worse. The case was brought in 2020 by attorneys for the environmental group Our Children's Trust, which since 2010 has filed climate lawsuits in every state on behalf of youth plaintiffs. Many cases—including a previous one in Montana—have been dismissed.

The lawsuit documents how the consequences of climate change already are being felt by the young plaintiffs, with smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathe and drought drying rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, and wildlife. A plaintiff's attorney said the state's continued support for fossil fuels violates environmental protections in the Montana Constitution, which says the state "shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and all future generations." State Judge Kathy Seeley said the court could declare that the state was in violation of the constitution, per the AP, without ordering that anything be done in response.

(More Montana stories.)

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