In Montana, the Big Sky (when there’s not a wildfire) State, a group of 16 young people ranging in age from five to 22 are getting their day — or two weeks, more like — in court, in a first of its kind lawsuit against the state, claiming that Montana policies favoring fossil fuels have failed to provide the state constitution’s guarantee of a healthy environment “for present and future generations.” The trial in the case of Held v. State of Montanagot underway Monday, with expert testimony on the reality of climate change, as well as testimony from two of the plaintiffs on how the climate crisis has directly affected them and their families.
A lot of climate-related lawsuits have sought damages and injunctive relief against fossil fuel companies that knew damn well their products contributed to global warming; in the US, many such suits have so far been thrown out or are still working their way through early procedural stages. Happy news: An April US Supreme Court decision allowing such suits in state courts may help move a number of cases forward. Held v. Montana, filed in 2020, wasn’t affected either way, since the defendant is the state itself.
The lawsuit argues that the state’s energy policy violates the state constitution by promoting fossil fuel development and use. It also seeks to strike down a provision of the Montana Environmental Policy Act that flatly forbids the state from considering climate change when approving energy projects. Despite last minute attempts to get the state Supreme Court to throw out the case, it’s going forward this week in Lewis and Clark District Court, under Judge Kathy Seeley.
In opening arguments Monday, the Guardian reports,
Roger Sullivan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, explained that climate change is fueling drought, wildfires, extreme heat and other environmental disasters throughout Montana, taking a major toll on the young plaintiffs’ health and wellbeing. There is a “scientific consensus”, he noted, that these changes can be traced back to the burning of fossil fuels.
He described how some plaintiffs have asthma that has been worsened by abundant wildfire smoke in recent years. Some love to hunt and fish but have seen stocks deteriorate. One plaintiff works as a ski instructor – a job threatened by warm winter temperatures and decreasing snowfall. And others are members of Indigenous tribes whose cultural practices are threatened by climate crisis-linked shifts in weather patterns, he said.
Montana is responsible for more planet-heating pollution than some countries, said Sullivan. Without urgent action, these climate consequences will only get worse.
Plaintiffs. Pic by the editrix’s dear best friend Susan Evans
The state, represented by assistant Attorney General Michael D. Russell, argued that since climate change is a global problem, nothing Montana does on its own can be proven to have made any difference one way or the other, aw shucks. He also claimed that the state no longer promotes fossil fuels since the state this year repealed its 30-year-old energy policy, so there’s nothing to sue over.
“This case as it currently exists is far more boring than the plaintiffs would make it out to be,” Russell told the court. “It’s simply a challenge to a discreet provision to a purely procedural statute.”
While it’s true that one bill passed this spring repealed the old climate policy, a bunch of others very specifically promote fossil fuels, like the measure prohibiting climate considerations in permitting, and other measures that will
loosen coal-mining regulations, prohibit local governments from adopting regulations to steer their communities toward cleaner energy sources, and make it harder and more expensive for environmental groups to delay or stop projects with litigation.
One bill even prohibits local building codes from “requiring solar panels, solar panel-ready wiring or electric vehicle charger-ready wiring in new construction,” and another forbids bans on methane gas hookups, because George Washington fought to secure a future for gas stoves. What we’re saying is, that guy’s a fucking liar.
Testimony began with Mae Nan Ellingson, who was a delegate to Montana’s constitutional convention in 1972, where she had advocated for the provision guaranteeing Montanans the right to a “clean and healthful environment.” This paragraph from the Montana Free Press sure makes us like her. When she moved to Missoula to attend the University of Montana in the ’60s, Ellingson testified, air pollution was
so bad that she couldn’t see Mount Sentinel, the iconic prominence that looms over the campus. She began phoning in reports to the local radio station and joined the group Gals Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), signaling her entrée to environmental activism.
No two ways about it: The Left has way more fun with acronyms.
The court also heard from Nikki Held, the lead plaintiff in the case, who grew up on a ranch in southeast Montana and in middle school helped gather data for a
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research project surveying cross sections of Montana’s Powder River, one of the longest undammed waterways in the West, which happens to pass through her family property. That research experience, along with learning about climate change in school, led Held to study environmental science at Colorado College, where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree just a few weeks ago.
Held testified that she had seen firsthand the effects of a changing climate on her family’s ranch, including “wildfires, drought, flooding, more extreme weather events such as windstorm and hail, changes in wildlife behavior,” and pointed out that her family ranch has seen drought and declining snowfall threaten its water supply. She started to discuss how the climate crisis has left her stressed out, but the state objected since that was “speculative,” and Judge Seeley sustained the objection since Held isn’t a climate expert or a psychologist.
The court also heard from expert witness Steven Running, a professor emeritus of ecosystem and conservation science at U of M, who explained the scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by greenhouse gases, resulting in worldwide effects that include Montana, like, even if Republicans say it’s not allowed to.
“I think Montana and really everywhere else needs to, as rapidly as possible, quit burning fossil fuels,” said Running, who was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which he won the Nobel Peace prize in 2007. “It’s quite straightforward.”
Weirdly, as Running answered questions about a report this year from the IPCC, Mark Stermitz, an attorney for the state, objected that the IPCC report was “hearsay” somehow, a complaint Seeley denied. When he cross-examined Running, Stermitz asked whether Montana can stop climate change all on its own, aha, gotcha! Running agreed that a single state can’t do that, but that Montana could indeed lead wider action:
“What has been shown in history over and over and over again is that when a significant social movement is needed, it’s often been started by one or two or three people,” Running said.
The Guardian did not note whether the state’s attorneys mocked Running by singing “Kumbaya” in falsetto, but you just know they wanted to.
The trial continues today and the rest of the week; you can even watch it online here when court is in session. Not like anything else of interest is going on.
Also, don’t forget our Wonkette Book Club continues; We’re reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 climate epic The Ministry for the Future, which is about, among other things, building a legal case for keeping the planet habitable for young people, even the non-plucky ones.
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