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Held v. Montana Is Just the Beginning

A group of young Montanans just won a groundbreaking victory for climate rights. Here’s what it means.

Scenic Montana backdrop with scales of justice in the foreground.
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In a groundbreaking moment in environmental law, a judge ruled Monday in favor of a group of youth plaintiffs who alleged that Montana violated their right to a healthy environment. It’s the first ruling of its kind in the country, and while it marks the end of this chapter of the case, known as Held v. Montana, experts say it’s only the beginning — both for the plaintiffs and for similar lawsuits around the country.

In her ruling, Judge Kathy Seeley wrote that a provision of the Montana Energy Policy Act, or MEPA, which prevented the state from considering the environmental impacts of energy projects, was unconstitutional. The state’s emissions, Seeley found, have contributed towards climate change, and therefore violated a provision in the Montana constitution that mandated “the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

So what does the ruling mean?

Let’s get the downer out of the way first: There’s little chance this is the end of the case. When I spoke to legal experts in June, they predicted the case would be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court regardless of the outcome, and the plaintiffs will likely have a harder time convincing that court of their case.

But still, James May, an environmental law professor at Delaware Law School, told me via email that the ruling suggests climate rights cases may be a powerful, underutilized tool for climate activists to tap into — and it could usher in a new wave of similar cases around the country and the world.

It will also bolster the plaintiffs in cases that are already ongoing around the country. In Hawaii, for example, where rescuers are still searching for survivors after the country’s deadliest wildfire event in recent history, a youth-led climate lawsuit against the state’s Department of Transportation was allowed to go ahead just last week. While that case will operate under a very different backdrop to the case in Montana (Hawaii’s constitution doesn’t guarantee a right to a “clean and healthful environment” like Montana’s does), the Held decision still provides the plaintiffs good reason for optimism.

“As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos,” said Julia Olson, Chief Legal Counsel and Executive Director with Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm that represents the plaintiffs in both the Montana and Hawaii cases, in a statement. “This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate. More rulings like this will certainly come.”

If the state does appeal the ruling, and if the ruling is upheld, the plaintiffs will have secured a monumental win, May told me. But even then, the work will only have just begun. He pointed to Brown v. Board of Education, the decision in which the United States Supreme Court ruled racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional. Despite that ruling, integration still took years and many long, sometimes violent, fights. Getting the Montana legislature to amend its climate-denialist policy — whether by simply striking the provision in question from MEPA or going further and pressuring the state to take climate action — will not be easy, even with the court’s backing.

“The road ahead will be long and winding, if the decision is upheld,” May wrote. “Gaining and enforcing the remedy is the hardest part.”

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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