Judge: Montana violated the plaintiffs’ rights to a “a clean and healthful environment” and equal protection under the Montana constitution.
The Montana judge overseeing the Children’s Climate Trial ruled in favor of the 16 child plaintiffs who “challenged the constitutionality of the State’s fossil fuel-based state energy system.” The judge agreed with the plaintiffs that Montana’s energy system violated the state constitution, which includes environmental rights and a guarantee of equal protection.
“This ruling is absurd,” Emily Flower of the Montana attorney general’s office told Legal Insurrection. “Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate. . . [The plaintiffs’] same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. . . The State will appeal.”
Montana’s constitution provides that “[t]he state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
The plaintiffs argued that the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) violated this constitutional provision by barring the state from considering the impact of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when conducting environmental reviews of proposed energy projects:
(2)(a) Except as provided in subsection (2)(b), an environmental review conducted pursuant to subsection (1) may not include an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state’s borders.
The court relied on testimony from several scientists, including experts in global ecology and Earth sciences, to support its conclusion that “[t]here is a scientific consensus that rising temperatures in Montana are due to rising GHG concentrations, primarily CO2.”
The decision included extensive findings of fact on the link between GHG emissions and the degradation of the environment in Montana:
140. Anthropogenic climate change is impacting, degrading, and depleting Montana’s environment and natural resources, including through increasing climate temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, increasing droughts and aridification, increasing extreme weather events, increasing severity and intensity of wildfires, and increasing glacial melt and lost. (citations omitted)
Given these findings, the judge held that MEPA violated the Montana constitution by preventing the state from assessing GHG emissions when approving energy projects. MEPA, the judge also found, kept the state from considering “alternatives to fossil fuel energy in Montana,” a further violation of the Montana constitution.
Relying on expert medical testimony, the judge found climate change is especially harmful to children:
104. Children are uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, which harms their physical and psychological health and safety, interferes with family and cultural foundations and integrity, and causes economic deprivations.
. . .
107. All children, even those without pre-existing conditions or illness, are a population sensitive to climate change because their bodies and minds are still developing. (citations omitted)
One youth plaintiff, Grace, reported psychological distress at the impact of climate change: “Grace feels fearful due to the glaciers disappearing from a state she loves.”
Sariel, a Native American youth plaintiff, complained of “significant distress due to the impacts of climate change on culturally important plants, and snow for creation stories. Her cultural connection to the land increases this impact.”
The judge also noted physiological differences between children and adults, making the former more susceptible to the effects of climate change:
121. Children have a higher basal metabolic rate, which makes it harder for them to dissipate heat from their bodies.
122. Children breathe in more air per unit of time than adults and consume more food and water proportional to their body weight, making children more susceptible to polluted or contaminated air, water, or food. (citations omitted)
Because of the unique harms suffered by children, the judge found MEPA denied them equal protection of the law in violation of the Montana constitution.
The judge “declared unconstitutional and . . . permanently enjoined” MEPA’s prohibition on assessing GHG emissions and awarded the plaintiffs “reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.”
The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) and Our Children’s Trust (OCT) brought the action on behalf of the child plaintiffs and praised the outcome.
“[T]hese youth finally had the chance to explain to the judge, and the world, how Montana’s government is violating their constitutional rights, including their fundamental right to a clean and healthful environment,” according to a WELC press release.
OCT issued a press release calling the decision “an historic first” and predicted, “[m]ore rulings like this will certainly come.” The release highlights other OCT legal challenges in Utah, Virginia, and Hawaii, as well as a federal challenge.
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