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News / Nation & World

Youth go to trial in a test of state’s obligation to protect Montana residents from warming

By AMY BETH HANSON and MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press
Published: June 12, 2023, 10:35am

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Youth plaintiffs said warming temperatures were harming their health and threatening their futures as a closely-watched climate trial kicked off Monday in Montana. But a lawyer for the fossil fuel-friendly state argued its emissions were “minuscule” on a global scale and that eliminating them would have little impact.

The case over state government obligations to protect people against worsening climate change is the first of dozens of similar lawsuits to reach trial. It’s scheduled to last two weeks.

The 16 young plaintiffs — supported by a parade of leading climate experts — are trying to persuade state District Judge Kathy Seeley that the state’s allegiance to fossil fuel development endangers their health and livelihoods and those of future generations.

Plaintiffs attorney Roger Sullivan said in opening arguments that his clients and their families already were suffering health problems and economic losses as climate change dries up rivers and worsens wildfires. He said Montana has a obligation to protect to protect residents from climate change under its unusually protective state constitution.

“The state has approved numerous large fossil fuel related permits that are responsible for enormous quantities of greenhouse gas emissions,” Sullivan said. “Every ton of CO2 we keep out of the air matters.”

Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said in response that the state had little control over global emissions. He also said the harms alleged by the young plaintiffs could not be traced to specific actions by state officials.

“Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference and climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator,” Russell said.

Experts say the case in state court could set legal precedent but isn’t likely to make immediate changes to policy in fossil fuel-friendly Montana.

Environmentalists have called the bench trial a turning point because similar suits in nearly every state have already been dismissed. A favorable decision could add to a handful of rulings globally that have declared governments have a duty to protect citizens from climate change.

One reason the case may have made it so far in Montana is the state’s constitutional requirement that government “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment.” Only a few states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, have similar environmental protections in their constitutions.

The plaintiffs criticize state officials for their alleged failure to curb planet-warming emissions while Montana pursued oil, gas and coal development that provides jobs, tax revenue and helps meet the energy needs of people in Montana and elsewhere.

The plaintiffs cite smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathe; drought drying rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreation; along with reduced snowpack and shortened winter recreation seasons.

Experts for the state are expected to counter that climate extremes have existed for centuries.

Carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burned, traps heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for the warming of the the climate. Carbon dioxide levels in the air this spring reached the highest levels they’ve been in over 4 million years, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month. Greenhouse gas emissions also reached a record last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

In the three years since the lawsuit was filed, the scope of the case has been narrowed to whether Montana’s Environmental Policy Act — which requires state agencies to balance the health of the environment against resource development — is unconstitutional because it does not require officials to consider greenhouse gas emissions or their climate impacts.

Judge Seeley has said she could rule that the state’s climate change exception in its environmental law is at odds with its constitution, but she can’t tell the legislature what to do to remedy the violation.

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