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Montana news about the environment, natural resources, wildlife, climate change and more.

In a first, a climate lawsuit from young people is going to trial

Missoula High School students take part in the nationwide "climate strike," March 15, 2019. A group of students hold signs reading, "Killed by climate inaction", "School strike 4 climate", "Death by liberal complicity" and "the climate is changing, why aren't we?"
Josh Burnham
Missoula High School students take part in the nationwide "climate strike," March 15, 2019.

Sixteen young people who say the state isn’t doing enough to address climate change will get their day in court Monday. The lawsuit argues that lack of action violates plaintiffs’ rights under the state Constitution. This is the first youth climate lawsuit to ever make it all the way to trial in the U.S.

Badge Busse is a 15-year-old high school student who lives in Kalispell. He and his older brother have grown up hunting and fishing in the mountains surrounding their home.

“It's hard to watch the things that I love, like, get depleted slowly, like fishing with my dad,” Busse said. “It's like, my main way to hang out with him and my brother.”

Increasingly hot temperatures have eroded fishing opportunities statewide as angling closures during the hottest part of the day have become more common. The state Constitution, written in 1972, explicitly says citizens have the right to “a clean and healthful environment.”

That’s one reason this case has made it all the way to trial. Young people nationwide have filed dozens of lawsuits about climate change since 2015, but none have actually been heard in court until now.

The Montana Constitution says "The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." How did that get included, and what does it mean for Montana? Learn more now on The Big Why

The Busse brothers and their 14 co-plaintiffs say Montana’s leaders need to establish limits on carbon emissions.

Controls on carbon emission are not popular among the politically powerful here.

“They want us to figure out the exact effect that will have on the global climate,” says Republican state Rep. Garry Parry of Colstrip.

Parry spoke out against the state even measuring carbon emissions during this year’s legislative session.

Parry was also among the supermajority of conservative lawmakers to vote for a bill that excludes consideration of greenhouse gas emissions and contributions to climate change under the Montana Environmental Policy Act.

He says lawsuits over climate change are a drain on the state economy.

“And it’s nearly impossible and it's there specifically to be an obstructionist measure for industry in this state.”

State Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office has made several attempts to get the youth climate lawsuit thrown out, but has so far failed.

The attorney general is not talking to the media about the kids’ lawsuit, but in an emailed statement he called it “a show trial on laws that do not exist” and a “waste of taxpayer resources.”

The attorney general and conservative lawmakers say the kids are being coached into suing by the legal team or their parents.

I think the fact that people would say that is just completely outright false,” Busse says.

The outcome of this landmark case could impact other children’s climate litigation going forward in state and federal courts.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Oregon said she’ll hear an amended version of a similar federal lawsuit that was previously thrown out. That suit was filed in 2015 by a group of 21 kids from around the country.

Plaintiffs Badge and his brother Lander say it’s surreal to finally be taking the stand.

Everyone should have a place for this case in their heart, every Montanan,” Badge says. “This is way bigger than I thought it would be going into it with Lander.”

Lander says, “We're doing this first and foremost for the people of Montana who cherish and share this land and use it the same ways that we do and respect it the same way we do.”

The Montana trial starts Monday in Helena and is scheduled to last two weeks.

Montana’s attorney general is again trying to avoid going to trial in a lawsuit that will determine whether the state’s contributions to climate change are violating young Montanans’ right to a clean environment.
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Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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