Plaintiffs await the start of the nation's first youth climate trial at Montana's 1st Judicial District Court in Helena on June 12, 2023.

Plaintiffs await the start of the nation's first youth climate trial at Montana's 1st Judicial District Court in Helena on June 12, 2023.

(Photo: William Campbell/Getty Images)

'Our Voices Are Actually Being Heard': Historic Youth Climate Trial Begins in Montana

"I think a victory for the Montana youth would really set the stage, provide a strong foundation for many of these other youth climate cases," said one law professor in the state.

The first-ever constitutional climate trial in the United States—the result of 16 youth suing the Montana government for promoting and supporting fossil fuels that dangerously warm up the planet—kicked off in Helena on Monday.

"Going to trial means a chance for me and my fellow plaintiffs to have our climate injuries recognized and a solution realized. It means our voices are actually being heard by the courts, the government, the people who serve to protect us as citizens, and Montana's youth," Grace, one of the 16 young people behind Held v. State of Montana, said in a statement earlier this year.

The plaintiffs' complaint shares the "ways the 16 youth have spent their childhoods watching the world burn," Gristnoted Friday:

A rancher's daughter recalls the sadness and stress of seeing a river cycle through droughts and floods, endangering and even killing her family's cattle. Two brothers who love to hunt and fish recount how the forest they rely upon for food is deteriorating around them. A toddler struggles to breathe as wildfire smoke aggravates his asthma. A young Indigenous woman worries that inexorable changes to the seasons will cause her tribe to lose the ancient cultural traditions that have seen them through seasons of war, genocide, and dispossession.

Plaintiff Mica Kantor recalls first hearing about climate change as a 4-year-old, when his parents took him to see the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, the 14-year-old recently told the Montana Free Press. In the years since, smoke from surrounding wildfires—worsened by global heating significantly driven by fossil fuels—has impacted his athletic outlet: running outdoors.

"When you're running and the air is nice and clear outside... it feels meditative and relaxing," he said. "But when you're running outside in the smoke, you feel sick, your throat is dry and your eyes are itching. It's the opposite of becoming free."

The Montana Constitution notably declares that "the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations," and "all persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights," including "the right to a clean and healthful environment."

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with the Western Environmental Law Center, McGarvey Law, and Our Children's Trust, whose webpage for Held explains that "the youth want the court to tell the government that it is unconstitutional to keep exploiting fossil fuels and they need to keep fossil in the ground and transition to clean energy no later than 2050."

As The New York Timesreported in March:

The origins of the case stretch back nearly a decade. In 2011... Our Children's Trust petitioned the Montana Supreme Court to rule that the state has a duty to address climate change. The court declined to weigh in, effectively telling the group to start in the lower courts.

So the lawyers at Our Children's Trust began building their case. They worked with the environmental community to identify potential plaintiffs. They cataloged the ways in which the state was being impacted by climate change. And they documented the state's extensive support for the fossil fuel industry, which includes permitting, subsidies, and favorable regulations.

Montana's government "has taken a sharp turn to the right in recent years, and is aggressively defending itself," the Times noted. While the offices of Gov. Greg Gianforte and state Attorney General Austin Knudsen, both Republicans, declined to comment on the case, "in its response to the lawsuit, the state disputed the overwhelming scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels was driving climate change and denied that Montana was experiencing increasingly severe weather linked to rising temperatures."

The trial is set to last for two weeks and is being livestreamed on Zoom. Some supporters of the plaintiffs have also headed to Helena, including Michelle Uberuaga an environmental attorney and the Montana state coordinator for Moms Clean Air Force.

"None of the plaintiffs in Held v. Montana are my biological children, but they feel like my kids," she wrote Sunday for the Billings Gazette. "I've known one of the plaintiffs since she was 5 years old, and now she's borrowing my clothes for depositions. I've watched these kids grow up and shared their fear and heartbreak as they've seen floods and wildfires wreak havoc on their communities and the beautiful state we call home. But I've also been deeply inspired by the way these youth plaintiffs and their peers are turning their lived experience into meaningful action."

"As I prepare to lend my full support to these youth, I'm calling on parents across the nation to summon their support for the courageous youth in their community confronting the climate crisis," she added. "The Held v. Montana trial is a not-to-miss historic first."

A win for the young Montanans "could set a very powerful legal precedent" that reaches beyond the state, University of Montana Blewett School of Law professor Sandra Zellmer toldDeSmog last week. "I think a victory for the Montana youth would really set the stage, provide a strong foundation for many of these other youth climate cases."

Other climate cases led by youth include Juliana v. United States. At the beginning of June, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken put that landmark case against the federal government—in which the plaintiffs are also represented by Our Children's Trust—back on track for a trial.

Aiken's recent ruling "is our legal system working the way it should: a fair and well-reasoned application of the law in a vitally important constitutional case where children's lives are at stake," said Julia Olson of Our Children's Trust, lead counsel for Juliana plaintiffs. "These young people have a right to access their courts and, after several long years, finally have their evidence of climate harm caused by their own government—and how to stop it—heard in open court."

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