Montana Court’s Groundbreaking Climate Change Ruling
The decision could help influence how other U.S. courts approach similar environmental rights claims.
A Montana court recently handed down a landmark decision siding with environmental rights in the nation’s first constitutional climate trial. Held v. State of Montana, brought by 16 youth plaintiffs, challenged a carveout in the Montana Environmental Policy Act that bars state officials from considering climate change impacts when conducting environmental reviews for fossil fuel–related permits.
On August 14, Judge Kathy Seeley found that the exception violates the state constitution’s guarantee of “a clean and healthful environment.” Her 103-page decision sets forth potentially path-setting findings of fact and conclusions of law that will inform, and perhaps influence, how courts in the United States and elsewhere treat similar climate rights claims.
The factual findings are especially significant. And in the climate context, factual disputes engage in complex questions of climate science. Here, the state challenged the plaintiffs’ standing to bring suit, arguing that they could not show a causal connection between greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the state and the specific, localized climate-related injuries the plaintiffs complained of, which included psychological harms along with a range of environmental and health effects.
The state further argued that even if the plaintiffs won, a court order would do nothing to redress those injuries. In essence, the state argued — as defendants in many climate cases have — that because climate change is a global problem that results from the aggregate effects of policies and actions undertaken by countless entities in every jurisdiction on the planet, it cannot be held accountable for its own contributions to it, as any quantity is just a “drop in the bucket.” The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that individual contributions add incrementally to the extent and severity of climate harms, both as a general matter and as experienced by individuals. In other words, every ton of greenhouse gases matters.
Prior to the trial, I anticipated that it would present a “battle of the experts.” It did not turn out that way. The plaintiffs’ attorneys, consisting of the team at Our Children’s Trust and its partners, put forward a series of highly credentialed scientists to address, among other things, the basics of climate science; the scope of climate-related impacts on the environment, natural resources, and public and human health in Montana; the state’s energy industry and greenhouse gases attributable to it; and the feasibility of a rapid transition away from an economy and energy system driven by fossil fuels. They also put the youth plaintiffs themselves on the stand to testify to their personal stories.
The state cancelled its single climate expert and put forward only one economics expert, whose testimony the judge found “was not well-supported, contained errors, and was not given weight by the Court.” Otherwise, the state relied on cross-examination to insinuate the impossibility of linking climate change and its local impacts to Montana’s fossil fuel industry. Seeley found that the causal connection exists, tracing the chain from government decisions in the state to emissions in the atmosphere to the plaintiffs’ lived experience. And Seeley found that if the state were to properly exercise its discretion in reviewing projects, it could alleviate — though not cure or stop — the plaintiffs’ injuries.
Seeley’s conclusions of law are also significant. In a first-of-its-kind decision in the United States, Seeley concluded that a constitutional right to a healthy environment imposes affirmative obligations on the state to take action to protect against climate change. As such, the state’s ostrich-like approach to environmental impact assessment and fossil fuel–related decision-making fails to satisfy its constitutional duty. The decision is in line with the views expressed by several courts in other countries — interpreting their own constitutions, common law, and international human rights instruments — which have similarly found governments obligated to undertake more robust assessments and more ambitious action to combat the climate crisis. The state has said it will appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
So what are the implications that arise from this decision? Will Montana alter its permitting practices, and perhaps even reach different decisions about fossil fuel projects? Will more states will adopt “Green Amendments” to their constitutions? Will other courts follow Seeley’s lead?
The decision is without question a major victory for the plaintiffs and their attorneys. And it is a highly visible, thorough, well-reasoned opinion that is grounded in science and the law. At the same time, it is also a single decision, from a trial court in Montana, addressing a set of legal and factual circumstances particular to that place, at this time. An appeal is in the offing. Time will tell.
But time, as the opinion itself makes clear, and as the summer’s wildfires, heat waves, and typhoons all evince, is not on our side. Legislatures, regulators, and private sector actors at all levels, everywhere, need to move quickly and boldly to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate tipping points. The decision in Held offers some hope that when they don’t, the judicial system can help push them, however reluctantly, forward.
Michael Burger is executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and a senior research scholar at Columbia Law School.
The founder of Green Amendments For The Generations, Maya van Rossum, discusses the impact of enshrining environmental rights in state constitutions.
A recent Montana state court decision reveals the interpretative clarity afforded by state constitutions that undergo regular and transparent revision.