In what could become a landmark trial in the USA, on 12 June in the Montana state court sixteen young people started an action that seeks to hold the state accountable for fossil fuel-friendly policies that they claim exacerbate global warming and threaten their futures. The case is among several constitutional climate cases on behalf of youthful plaintiffs across the USA and is the first of them to come to court.
News agency Reuters is reporting the trial which started with Roger Sullivan, an attorney for the plaintiffs, painting a sweeping 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.
The plaintiffs, who were between the ages of 2 and 18 when they filed their lawsuit in 2020, want judge Kathy Seeley to rule that the state's policies violate their rights. They hope that would set an important precedent and encourage lawmakers in the state capital to take greater action to fight climate change.
Roger Sullivan stated that the state’s ongoing permitting process in favour of 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.
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 is being claimed. Montana's greenhouse gas emissions are declining, he said. And the plaintiffs are not challenging policies that would, if invalidated, meaningfully change the state's impact on the climate, because the primary policy targeted in the lawsuit, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, is a ‘procedural’ law that requires environmental reviews for large projects but does not mandate specific outcomes.
Attorneys for the state had repeatedly attempted to have the case thrown out before trial, arguing that climate change is an issue best addressed through the political process, not in courtrooms.
The plaintiffs claim the state's “systemic authorisation, permitting, encouragement and facilitation” of fossil fuels exacerbates the climate crisis. They had originally sought an injunction ordering the state to develop a remedial plan or policies to reduce emissions. Judge Seeley rejected that bid in 2021, saying that it would require the court to make policy decisions better left to other branches of government.