Why are young Montanans suing over climate change?

More lawsuits against energy companies are on the way

Courthouse, chimney stacks and Montana state
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Can young people fight climate change with a lawsuit? A group of young Montanans is trying, The Associated Press reported, going to "a first-of-a kind trial of a lawsuit that environmentalists hope will spur changes in the fossil fuel-friendly state." The state constitution contains a clause guaranteeing the right to a "clean and healthful environment," and the plaintiffs — 16 Montanans, aged 5 to 22 — say the state's pro-carbon policies threaten their future.

Climate change is "affecting people in Montana and people working closely with the land, and we rely on environmental systems to make a living," lead plaintiff Rikki Held told the Christian Science Monitor. She said climate change has already created challenges like wildfires and flooding at her family's ranch near Big Sky.

Montana officials are fighting the suit, The New York Times reported, claiming the state's carbon emissions aren't substantially adding to the pace of climate change. "Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana's role to that of a spectator," ​​Michael Russell, an assistant attorney general, said during opening arguments this week. The trial is attracting worldwide attention. Will courtrooms be where the future of climate change is decided?

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What are commentators saying?

"The age of climate trials starts now," Scott W. Stern wrote at The Washington Post. There is a long history of this kind of legal activism, going back to 1966 when a lawyer who wanted to stop Suffolk County N.Y. from spraying DDT pesticide said he was suing "on behalf of all of the people of the United States, not only of this generation, but of those generations yet unborn." It's hard to say who will win the Montana trial, but the legal outcome isn't the only one that matters: "It will put the issue before a judge, as well as before the court of public opinion."

Putting the climate issue before the courts is un-democratic, Nate Hochman wrote at National Review. "In our form of government, important issues are hashed out via democratic deliberation," but climate activists are instead increasingly choosing to try to sue carbon producers into submission." Yes, climate change is a serious issue. But a "lawfare" approach won't work and is wrong besides. Such lawsuits are an attempt to legislate climate policy "from the bench" and serve as "an act of targeted harassment against disfavored institutions."

Legislative leaders in Montana have dedicated themselves to a "decades-long commitment to propping up expensive, polluting fossil fuels" with laws that "undermine climate action," a group of organizations supporting the Montana lawsuit wrote in the Helena Independent Record. That violates young Montanans' rights to a "rights to a clean and healthful environment," which is why they're bringing the lawsuit. "We shouldn't be relying on our young people to fight for their future; we should be working to give them the best future possible."

What's next?

Regardless of how the Montana suit turns out, 2023 will be a "watershed year for climate litigation," The Guardian reported. It may not always work out in the plaintiffs' favor: In April for example, a Canadian judge dismissed another youth-led lawsuit even while criticizing Ontario's provincial government for falling "severely short" of adequate climate planning. Other cases are percolating in Mexico, South Africa and Australia.

Even if the Montana lawsuit succeeds, it isn't clear that it can be replicated in other U.S. states. Montana's constitutional guarantee of a healthy environment is "provided in only two other states: Pennsylvania, and as of 2021, New York," Rolling Stone reported. But climate activists may have a new route through the courts: The U.S. Supreme Court in April allowed cities in Colorado, Maryland, California, Hawaii and Rhode Island to proceed with climate lawsuits against energy companies in state courts. But those trials "could still be years away," Climatewire reported.

The plaintiffs in Montana believe they can help jump-start a dramatic shift in how the law addresses climate change. "You don't hear about all the civil rights cases that failed before Brown vs Education," Lander Busse, one of the plaintiffs, told Rolling Stone. "It's the landmark decision that starts the trickle down."

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Joel Mathis

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.