Earlier this year, a group of 16 young Montanans won a landmark climate case that could have significant implications for environmental law. Held v. Montana is the first decision in the U.S. that fuses climate change with a state’s constitutional right to a healthy environment.
The youth plaintiffs, ranging in age from 2 to 18, challenged the constitutionality of a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act, known as the “MEPA Limitation,” that prevents the state from “considering the impacts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or climate change” when conducting environmental reviews of proposed policy plans. This limitation essentially led the state to disregard the impact of climate change on the people of Montana and the consideration of renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.
The suit also challenged a provision of Montana’s state energy policy, which explicitly promotes the use of fossil fuels. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley held that both statutory provisions are unconstitutional, marking a victory for climate advocates. The plaintiff’s case relied on Montana’s state constitution, Article IX, Section 1, which asserts, “[t]he state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Notably, Montana’s constitution explicitly deems children under the age of 18 as having equal rights as adults.
The state argued that plaintiffs lacked standing because their injuries weren’t directly caused by these two statutes. Judge Seeley disagreed. She wrote in her opinion: “By prohibiting analysis of GHG emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate, as well as how additional GHG emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana Constitution,The MEPA Limitation violates Youth Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is unconstitutional on its face.”
Montana announced it would appeal the decision, which has yet to be filed.
I spoke with one of the Held plaintiffs, Grace, who was 16 when the lawsuit was filed, and Julia Olson, the Executive Director & Chief Legal Counsel at Our Children’s Trust, a public interest law firm dedicated to securing the youth’s right to a safe climate. Olson represents the plaintiffs in Montana and represents youth plaintiffs in other legal challenges across the U.S. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What makes a strong plaintiff in a case like this?
Julia Olson: Every young person we represent in all of our cases at the state level is experiencing harm and injury to their lived experience. Sometimes it’s to their health, or their homes, or their religious practices. And so it varies across the young people. They each have their individual unique story.
But they’re all harmed and they’re all able to express it and talk about it and share it with the world and with these judges. And that’s what really makes a plaintiff a strong plaintiff is someone who is able to identify those really important injuries to their life and then have the bravery and the courage and the vulnerability to talk about it.
Grace, how does climate change impact your daily life?
Grace: It impacts me constantly. I’m part of the generation who’s grown up knowing about climate change for as long as I can remember. I have this perpetual fear of loss, which is a very convoluted emotion.
…I also have frustration that the burden of solving this problem is being put on my shoulders. Yes, we have a problem, but no, 16-year-olds, the other youth in our cases, we shouldn’t be the ones having to fight for this. And yet, I also have guilt every time I’m spending time not working on climate change, not thinking about how to best mitigate it. And so I carry this guilt and this sense of obligation that I really wish I didn’t have in the first place.
So what happens after the groundbreaking ruling in Held? How does it change the climate policymaking in Montana?
Julia Olson: When you read this opinion, the judge didn’t just say, this law is invalid and so go consider the environmental effects on climate change of fossil fuel activities.
The court wrote that every additional ton of greenhouse gas pollution that results from the activities in Montana is causing constitutional injury to these young people because they are already experiencing such significant harm. And the science is clear that every additional ton exacerbates the climate crisis.
So the judge found that amounts to unconstitutional conduct to continue to allow more pollution that’s causing climate change. This means that this decision should shut down any new fossil fuel development in the state of Montana and is going to require the state to phase out all fossil fuel activity by 2050 at the latest, which the court also found was both feasible and economically beneficial for all of the people of Montana.
I think it’s a real signal of the transformative moment we are in with the law and protecting children and their rights in the face of the climate crisis.
Grace, has participating in such a groundbreaking case changed your perspective at all in relation to the fight against climate change?
Grace: Being a part of Held, I’ve met countless people who care just as much about this as I do. And that is remarkable because I often feel very alone in the context of fighting climate change. It’s such a massive issue, it makes me feel so small. And so finding other people who have stood beside me and I stand beside them in the work that we’ve done through Held and elsewhere gives me strength and to a certain extent, hope.
My perspective remains the same as before in that despite the ruling, I still feel a lot of resistance on the part of the state of Montana to their role in upholding our rights.
The simple fact that they’re appealing the ruling indicates a lack of inclination to do what I see as their basic job, which is to protect their citizens, particularly the citizens who have fewer protections in the sense of economic and voting rights, et cetera, which is us, the youth plaintiffs.
And so I believe our case has absolutely made a change and will continue to. And I’m discouraged by the continued resistance from our government. But this is why we’re going to the courts, because the government is bound by the law just as much as we are.
Julia, your organization filed a new federal climate case in California against the EPA. Can you talk about it? What’s at issue?
Julia Olson: We filed a new federal constitutional case under the Fifth Amendment on behalf of 18 children. They are between the ages of 8 years old and 17 years old and they live across the state of California. And like Grace and many of the other Held plaintiffs, they’re experiencing a lot of harm from the increase in temperatures and drought and fire and smoke.
They’re suing the EPA because it is the single federal agency that is tasked with controlling air pollution and protecting air quality of the nation dating back to the Nixon administration in 1970. And in all of those intervening years, the EPA has intentionally allowed levels of climate pollution that are life threatening and nation threatening.
This case, Genesis v. EPA, is about the intentional discrimination against children when the EPA has acted in these ways and has affirmatively devalued their lives with its economic cost benefit analyses. And the plaintiffs are arguing that their right to life in this country is being infringed.
If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in this case, under the Fifth Amendment, what would that establish in terms of rights for children?
Julia Olson: It would be really groundbreaking for children, and I think for our entire jurisprudence on what the Constitution means for young people and generations to come.
This case has novel claims because it’s the first time anyone has brought a case that is explicitly calling out EPA’s discrimination in this way against children and asking the court to be clear about the rights of children under the Equal Protection Clause of the U. S. Constitution. But there’s a long line of cases in the U.S. Supreme Court that single out children for special protection. One of those early cases is Brown v. Board of Education, where segregation was deemed unconstitutional in the context of looking at its effect on children first, before that ruling was applied to adults.
There are also cases around children of undocumented parents or children of unmarried parents that successfully challenged the laws and conduct of government that harmed children because of decisions adults made.
We need to specially protect children because they’re vulnerable. They’re still developing. They depend on their caregivers for everything. They can’t vote. They don’t have economic power. And it’s why they really need protected status under the U.S. Constitution, and state constitutions.