Much publicity was generated recently by a court case in Montana (Held v. State of Montana). A nonprofit called Our Children’s Trust, acting on behalf of 16 young Montanans, sued the state claiming young people have a constitutional right to a healthful environment and the state must consider potential climate damage when approving projects.
Judge Kathy Seeley of Montana District Court decided in their favour. She ruled that the state’s emissions “have been proven to be a substantial factor” in affecting the climate and laws that limited the ability of regulators to consider climate effects were unconstitutional. Montanans “have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system,” said the judge.
She was ruling specifically against state laws that have prevented officials from weighing climate impacts when considering new projects. Recent law has blocked the state from “an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state’s borders.”
Montana is a major coal and gas producing state, but it also has a strong environmental heritage. A provision in its constitution states that the state should “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
Judge Seeley’s ruling hinges on the constitution but one of the young plaintiffs, Lander Busse, explained it more plainly, “A lot of this is just rooted in how many Montanans, including us, live life on an everyday basis, and how ingrained the wildlife and the land and the nature is in who we are.”
The court heard from climate scientists as well as the youngsters themselves who testified about effects they had witnessed—extreme weather events that threaten family ranching, warmed rivers and streams that harm fish, wildfire smoke that worsens asthma—as well as the toll on their mental health as they consider a future threatened by environmental collapse.
The state made an argument we hear ad nauseam here in Alberta, that Montana’s emissions are minuscule compared to the world’s. Servant of the fossil fuel industries, the state will almost certainly appeal the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.
Other states have similar protections, and young people in Hawaii, Utah, Oregon and Virginia have filed lawsuits. As have young people in other countries.
Here in Canada, youths sued the Ontario government for replacing the province’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target with a significantly weaker and unscientific one. Justice Marie-Andrée Vermette of the Ontario Superior Court ruled—for the first time in Canada—that courts can consider whether a government’s response to climate change infringes upon human rights. Ontario also tried to duck responsibility by pointing out the province’s relatively small contributions to global emissions. It failed—every single GHG emission contributes to global warming.
An independent panel of legal experts that interprets United Nations human rights law, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, has endorsed these efforts. The committee said all countries have a legal obligation to protect children from environmental degradation. That includes regulating business enterprises and allowing underage citizens to seek legal recourse.
“Children have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” the committee reported. “This right is implicit in the convention and directly linked to, in particular, the rights to life, survival and development.”
All this offers a ray of hope during this summer of record heat, catastrophic wildfires and smoke-filled skies. In the Montana case, climate science was on trial and it won. It cannot get too many victories. Science is, after all, on our side.