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Montana's youth climate trial reaches its halfway point

Montana Capitol
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Capitol

The country’s first constitutional climate trial, taking place in Helena, has reached its halfway point. Youth plaintiffs in Held v. Montana are suing the state over its energy policies, claiming they violate the kids’ state constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by worsening global warming. Montana Public Radio’s Ellis Juhlin has been in the courtroom as the plaintiffs laid the groundwork for their arguments. She joined Montana Public Radio’s Morning Edition host Austin Amestoy with a recap.

Austin Amestoy: It’s hard not to feel like there are a lot more eyes on Montana than usual right now, Ellis. We’ll get to the legal arguments made so far in a second, but first, take us to that Helena courtroom — what has the atmosphere been like so far?

Ellis Juhlin: Every morning about 20 minutes before they arrive at the Lewis and Clark County courthouse, a group of people assemble along either side of the main path leading into the courthouse with signs and posters to cheer the kids on as they walk in.

These 16 kids are asking state officials to recognize Montana’s contributions to climate change, and address it by establishing limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

This case is getting a lot of attention because of the big question it asks about whether a government can be held responsible for its policy’s impact on climate change. This case could test just how far Montanan’s right to a clean and healthful environment goes. And, the ruling here would set a precedent that could influence legal fights elsewhere. And there are other cases like this pending in other states, and at the national level.

Austin Amestoy: What kind of case are these kids and their lawyers making?

Ellis Juhlin: They’re trying to show how climate change has negatively affected these kids and how that will continue if the state doesn’t take action.

20-year-old Claire Vlases from Bozeman is one of the kids in the case. She and almost every youth plaintiff we’ve heard from has talked about how they’re impacted by longer wildfire seasons and high summer heat.

Claire Vlases: It’s smoky, the world is burning.I can’t go outside unless I want my lungs to feel like they’re on fire and my nose to be full of smoke. That sounds like a dystopian horror film but it’s not a movie, it’s real life.”

Ellis Juhlin: Other kids have shared how drier conditions affect their ability to hunt with their families and stock their freezers for winter, how they can’t ski for as long on a dwindling snowpack and how depressed and anxious they feel when they think about the future.

And a lot of the kids have shared how climate change has impacted their livelihoods, like for 22-year-old Rikki Held whose family ranch in Eastern Montana lost cattle from a nearby fire a few summers ago.

Rikki Held: Neighbors lost cattle in the fire, then we lost a few because they were so stressed trying to find water, and with the drought, trying to find grass.

Ellis Juhlin: Between the kids’ stories about how they feel their life has been changing, are the climate experts. The scientists have explained what climate change is doing to the planet and to Montana in particular.

There’s also been a pediatrician and a psychiatrist that have talked about the negative health effects of living on a warming planet, and both a fossil fuel economist and a state policy expert who detailed Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions.

They’re not just giving evidence about the harms of climate change, they’re also arguing that the state has known about climate change and not only ignored it, but continued to make it worse by advancing fossil fuel friendly policies.

Anne Hedges is the director of policy with the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Anne Hedges: Montana is not walking but running in the wrong direction to address climate change.The Legislature is outright hostile to the clean energy transition. The executive branch has an all of the above energy policy which prioritizes fossil fuels over everything else. The state government has no interest in youth plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment.

Austin Amestoy: Climate change is a world-wide problem. Entire nations debate about their roles in addressing it. What’s the argument for why Montana should be blamed for violating its citizens’ right to a clean environment? Since it’s a relatively small player when considering the global consequences.

Ellis Juhlin: That’s a great question Austin, and one the state has posed many times. Climate scientists have said repeatedly that because of how much carbon dioxide is already in the atmosphere, any more emissions will make climate change worse.

Austin Amestoy: In the coming days the state will present more of its arguments, but what have we heard from the state’s lawyers so far?

Ellis Juhlin: A big component of the state’s counterargument, so far, is that they are not responsible for climate change, that this is a global issue. State’s attorneys have asked questions getting to the point that even if Montana were to drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, climate change would still persist.

The state is arguing that even if the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, they’re still going to be suffering from the effects of global climate change. However the plaintiffs argue one step toward limiting fossil fuels is better than the path the world is currently on.

Here’s an exchange between the state’s attorney Mark Stermitz and Nobel Prize-winning Climate Scientist Steve Running.

Mark Stermitz: If the judge ordered we stop using fossil fuels in Montana, would that get us to the point where plaintiffs are no longer being harmed?

Steve Running: We can’t tell in advance because what’s been shown in history over and over again is when a significant social movement is needed it’s often started by one or two or three people.If our state decided to do what you’re hypothesizing we can’t tell how many other states would decide that’s the right thing to do and will do it too.

Austin Amestoy: So Ellis, what should we expect moving forward?

Ellis Juhlin: Next week is the state’s turn to argue their side, they’ll bring their expert witnesses And then it’s all in the hands of District Court Judge Kathy Seeley to make a decision.

Austin Amestoy: Do we have any idea when she might rule?

Ellis Juhlin: It’s entirely up to her on how long it takes to go through all the information and make a decision.

In all likelihood, one side or the other will disagree with her ruling and try to petition the Montana Supreme Court to review the case. There’s no way to know until we hit that point, but it’s safe to say this is far from over.

Austin Amestoy: Well, we’ll keep up with your coverage from the courtroom, Ellis. Thank you so much.

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.
Austin graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program in May 2022. He came to MTPR as an evening newscast intern that summer, and jumped at the chance to join full-time as the station’s morning voice in Fall 2022.

He is best reached by emailing
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