Climate Victory in Montana

Keeping a promise to future generations
Youth plaintiffs arrive at the courthouse in Helena, Montana, for the final day of the 'Held v. State of Montana' trial, June 20, 2023 (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File).

Home to some of the largest and most beloved national parks in the country, Montana is known for its natural beauty and access to the outdoors. So it comes as no surprise that its 1972 State Constitutional Delegation drafted language guaranteeing a “clean and healthful” environment for current and future residents, adopting “the strongest preventative and anticipatory constitutional environmental provisions possible.”

Now, those future residents, represented by sixteen plaintiffs aged five to twenty-two, are holding the state to its word, supported by the August 14 ruling of District Court judge Kathy Seeley in Held v. State of Montana. The case concerns a provision of the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) known as the “MEPA Limitation,” which expressly forbids Montana agencies from considering greenhouse-gas emissions and their effect on the climate in environmental reviews. The reviews are part of the permitting process for fossil-fuel energy projects including coal mines, gas plants, pipelines, refineries, and industrial facilities. Judge Seeley’s decision methodically presents the scientific consensus connecting emissions from those projects with climate change, and climate change with adverse health effects for Montana’s youth.

Lifting the MEPA Limitation is the first step, but it doesn’t guarantee the implementation of any proactive measures toward renewable energy.

Each of the plaintiffs cited concrete harms they suffered as a direct result of climate change. These included forced relocation due to wildfires and respiratory conditions like asthma triggered by smoke inhalation. But they also included less obvious effects. There were, for example, the Indigenous sisters who, because of changes in rainfall and temperature, can no longer reliably find and harvest chokecherries for the traditional summer festival centered on the fruit. Then there was the competitive Nordic skier whose training opportunities are limited by melting snowpack. In addition to the plaintiffs’ personal stories, a parade of expert witnesses provided credible and informative testimony on climate science and renewable energy. (Meanwhile, the testimony of the defense’s only expert witness was, in the judge’s words, “not well-supported, contained errors, and was not given weight by the Court.”)

The transition away from fossil fuels in Montana would also be economically beneficial for state residents, who would see significant reductions in their energy costs. Lifting the MEPA Limitation is the first step, but it doesn’t guarantee the implementation of any proactive measures toward renewable energy. Montana’s Republican legislative supermajority has consistently ignored environmental recommendations, and the court can’t compel it to heed them. Still, Held sets an important precedent. Several other state constitutions include so-called “green amendments” that form the basis of ongoing lawsuits, and this case proves that such amendments can be more than empty words.

Montana’s constitution calls for “adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.” As an earlier Montana court reasoned, this “clearly indicates that Montanans have a right not only to reactive measures after a constitutionally-proscribed environmental harm has occurred, but to be free of its occurrence in the first place.” Yet it is precisely because that harm has already occurred that the plaintiffs could bring their case at all. For these sixteen young people, and for countless others across the state and around the world, there is no way to recover the lost days of fishing caused by low water levels, the lost opportunities to participate in generations-old traditions that rely on seasonal patterns disrupted by climate change, or the lost views of glaciers and mountains caused by wildfire smoke and high temperatures. We should celebrate Held, and it should inspire us to greater action. But we should never forget what’s already been lost.

Published in the September 2023 issue: 

Isabella Simon is the managing editor at Commonweal.

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