Montana plaintiffs.

Youth plaintiffs are greeted by supporters as they arrive for the nation's first youth climate change trial at Montana's 1st Judicial District Court on June 12, 2023 in Helena, Montana.

(Photo: William Campbell/Getty Images)

'This Case Is Important': Historic Youth Climate Lawsuit Wraps in Montana

"The climate crisis is at home in Montana, and has diminished the lives of each and every one of the plaintiffs," one attorney said.

The first constitutional U.S. climate trial concluded Tuesday—about a week earlier than expected as the defense shortened its list of witnesses.

The 1st Judicial District Court in Helena, Montana, heard closing arguments in Held v. State of Montana, as the lawyers representing 16 young people aged 5 to 22 argued that the state government had violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights by worsening the climate emergency as it continues to extract and burn fossil fuels.

"Plaintiffs are asking this court to declare that a stable climate system is fundamental to the protection of their rights to clean and healthful environment," attorney Nate Bellinger said during closing arguments, as The Guardianreported.

Held v. State of Montana was first brought by the 16 young people—then aged 2 to 18—in 2020. The youth are represented by nonprofit Our Children's Trust, which was founded specifically to handle youth climate lawsuits—as well as attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center and McGarvey Law.

The case hinges on two articles of the Montana Constitution that guarantee a right to a "clean and healthful environment" and stipulate that "the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations."

The young people want the court to declare that the state of Montana is violating their constitutional rights with their current fossil fuel policy and instruct it to transition to renewable energy by 2050. Lewis and Clark County Judge Kathy Seeley has said she won't direct state policy if she rules in favor of the plaintiffs, but will issue a "declaratory judgment" stating that the state's actions are unconstitutional, The Guardian reported.

"The state approves every fossil fuel permit with zero consideration of the harm to children."

Specifically, the plaintiffs are targeting the "MEPA exception," a Montana law that prohibits state agencies from considering climate impacts when permitting projects under the Montana Environmental Policy Act, Courthouse News Service explained.

"The state approves every fossil fuel permit with zero consideration of the harm to children," Bellinger said, as Courthouse News Service reported. "Montana's contribution to anthropogenic climate change harms, and the impacts of Montana's emissions are both local and immediate as well as global and long-lasting. Every ton matters."

During the first week of the trial, the young plaintiffs explained how the climate crisis had already impacted their daily lives with hotter summers and more devastating wildfires, floods, and droughts.

"It is really scary seeing what you love disappear before your eyes," plaintiff Sariel, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said during testimony June 14. "This case is important."

The court also heard testimony from experts about the impacts of the climate crisis on Montana and the state's contribution to climate change.

"We are at a decision point about taking action on climate change," Peter Erickson, a climate change policy researcher for the Stockholm Environment Institute, testified June 15. "The world community has decided we must. Montana continues to issue fossil fuel permits."

On Monday, the court heard witnesses for the defense. The state called two members of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality—Director Chris Dorrington and Administrator for the Air, Energy, and Mining Division Sonja Nowakowski, as well as economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University Terry Anderson.

Montana was originally slated to call more witnesses—including its only climate science witness Judith Curry and its only mental health witness Debra Sheppard.

Curry is a climatologist and known climate denier who charged the state around $30,000 for a report relating to the case, DeSmog reported. Sheppard, meanwhile, said in deposition that she had no expertise in how climate impacted children's mental health, the Flathead Beaconreported.

Of those who did testify, Dorrington told attorneys before the trial that he had not been familiar with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), The Guardian reported.

"I attended this trial last week when there was testimony relevant to IPCC, but prior to that I wasn't familiar and certainly not deeply familiar [with] its role or its work," he said, as CNN's Rachel Ramirez tweeted.

When asked if greenhouse gas emissions harm the "environmental life support system" and contribute to environmental degradation, Nowakowski said twice that she was "not a scientist," according to climate journalist Dana Drugmand.

Anderson has ties to the tobacco industry and is charging Montana $500 per hour for his services, The Guardian reported. During cross-examination, plaintiffs' lawyer Phil Gergory pointed out several errors in his presentation.

"Anyone listening to the trial last week heard irrefutable expert testimony from the world's top experts in their fields," Julia Olson, chief legal counsel with Our Children's Trust, said in a statement Monday. "In contrast, the state presented a slim offering of 'we can't stop permitting fossil fuel projects' alongside an economist—their only expert—who presented testimony with mathematical errors and a misunderstanding of emissions data."

In its closing arguments Tuesday, Montana emphasized that it could not be held accountable alone for resolving the climate crisis, and that climate policy should be decided by lawmakers, not the courts.

"Climate change is an issue much larger than one Montana can address on its own," Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said, as Courthouse News Service reported. He called the trial a "weeklong airing of political grievances that properly belongs in the Legislature, not the court of law."

Bellinger, meanwhile, emphasized the crisis' local impacts.

"The climate crisis is at home in Montana, and has diminished the lives of each and every one of the plaintiffs," he said.

Seeley's decision will come after the parties file their proposed filings, which have a deadline of early July, The Associated Press reported.

A victory for the plaintiffs may not ultimately impact Montana policy under Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte.

"Republicans in Montana seem pretty fixed in their ways, and I don't think a decision by this district court is going to change the way that they think about these issues," James Huffman, a Montana resident and former professor and dean emeritus at Lewis & Clark Law School, told the AP.

However, a win could set an important precedent in other climate lawsuits across the country.

Plaintiff Lander Busse told the AP he hoped the case would start "a trickle down of other litigation and activism nationally."

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