HELENA – A landmark climate change trial opened Monday in Montana, where a group of youths and young adults are contending that the state’s embrace of fossil fuels is destroying pristine environments, upending cultural traditions and robbing young residents of a healthy future.
The case, more than a decade in the making, is the first of several set to go to trial in the United States.
Rikki Held, 22, a plaintiff who was among the first witnesses to testify Monday, described how her family’s 3,000-acre ranch in eastern Montana has been threatened by droughts, wildfires and extreme weather, from heat waves to floods. At times, she grew tearful talking about working through those conditions while trying to maintain the family’s livelihood.
“I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part of that,” Held said. “You can’t just blow it off and do nothing about it.”
The case revolves around the contention from 16 young residents – who range in age from 5 to 22 – that the state government has failed to live up to its constitutional mandate to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
State leaders have fought the accusations, calling the proceedings a show trial and a “gross injustice.”
“Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference,” Michael Russell, an assistant attorney general, said during the state’s opening statement. “Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator.”
The two-week trial will determine whether a judge should declare that the state’s support for the fossil fuel industry is unconstitutional. Such a finding would put legal pressure on government leaders to take action, and set a tone for other states that are watching how the proceedings unfold.
The effects of a warming climate are already spreading across Montana, including shrinking glaciers at Glacier National Park and a lengthening wildfire season that threatens the state’s treasured outdoor pastimes. The plaintiffs in the case have said the state’s inaction on climate change threatens their ability to access clean water, sustain family ranches or continue hunting traditions.
“Montana’s warming climate will have cascading environmental and economic impacts,” Roger Sullivan, a lawyer for the young residents, said in opening statements.
The young people have personally experienced daunting signs of the future, not only the smoke from wildfires but the flooding at Yellowstone National Park. Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust, an environmental nonprofit that helped bring the Montana lawsuit, said the case had the potential to set a new course for a healthier and more prosperous future for the generations to come. Many of the young plaintiffs planned to testify.
Montana, whose unofficial nicknames include the “Treasure State,” has long had its fortunes yoked to the mining industry. Helena, the state capital, where the climate case is being tried, was founded in the 1860s by gold prospectors. Montana is the nation’s fifth-largest coal-producing state and the 12th-largest oil-producing state.
Earlier this year, continuing to demonstrate the state’s support of fossil fuels, Republican lawmakers approved a law that prohibits state regulators from considering the impact on climate when assessing large projects such as new power plants and factories.
However, the state has also long treasured its unspoiled landscapes and crystal-clear lakes, embracing another unofficial nickname, “The Last Best Place.” The state added the language to its constitution about the right to a clean and healthful environment in 1972 in response to growing concern about protecting those assets.
The first witness called by the plaintiffs was Mae Nan Ellingson, who was the youngest delegate at the 1972 constitutional convention. She testified about how environmental protection was a key issue for many who were involved in the process.
“We wanted an environment that was clean and healthful, so it was a fairly long and contentious debate to ultimately get the words clean and healthful included as descriptors of the environment,” she said.
State leaders have resisted the climate lawsuit, which had its roots in an unsuccessful effort in 2011 that pressed the state Supreme Court to force the state to take action on climate change. As part of the case, state officials have disputed the overwhelming scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is changing the global climate and denied that severe weather events in the state were linked to rising air temperatures.
Our Children’s Trust has undertaken legal action in every state on the climate issue, and several of the group’s lawsuits are pending. The group won another preliminary victory June 1 when a judge ruled that a youth case in Oregon, aimed at the federal government, could go to trial.