© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Wildland Firefighters battle the Bridge Coulee Fire, part of the Lodgepole Complex, east of the Musselshell River, north of Mosby, Montana, U.S. July 21, 2017. Bureau of Land Management/Jonathan Moor/Handout via REUTERS.

By Clark Mindock

(Reuters) – The first trial in several U.S. climate change cases brought by youths kicked off on Monday in Montana, where sixteen young people are seeking to hold the state accountable for fossil fuel-friendly policies they claim exacerbate global warming and threaten their futures.

Roger Sullivan, an attorney for the young plaintiffs, painted a sweeping picture of the costs and consequences of Montana’s energy policies, which he said violate a state constitutional provision that guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment,” during his opening statement at the two-week bench trial in state court.

The plaintiffs, who were between the ages of 2 and 18 when they filed their lawsuit in 2020, want Judge Kathy Seeley in Helena to declare the state’s policies violate their rights. They hope that would set an important precedent and encourage lawmakers in the state capital to take greater action to fight climate change, according to their lawyers.

Sullivan said the state’s ongoing permitting for polluting fuels like coal and gas is contributing to a global crisis that is shrinking the state’s glaciers and making its rivers run dry, and argued that the young people he represents are suffering psychological, health and economic damages as a result.

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Lead plaintiff Rikki Held, 22, testified that climate change has already led to severe conditions on her family’s ranch in eastern Montana. She said droughts have left “skinny cows and dead cattle” and said wildfires have made ash fall from the sky.

But she said she is optimistic things can turn around.

“We have the technology and knowledge, we just need empathy and willingness to do the right thing,” she said.

Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said the trial will include “lots of emotions” and “lots of assumptions, accusations, speculation, prognostication and, notably, fear” about the future.

But he said the reality is “far more boring” than what the youth have claimed.

Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are declining, Russell said. And the youth are not challenging policies that would, if invalidated, meaningfully change the state’s impact on the climate, he said.

He said that is because the primary policy targeted in the lawsuit, the Montana Environmental Policy Act, is a “procedural” law that requires environmental reviews for big projects but does not mandate specific outcomes.

Attorneys for the state had repeatedly attempted to have the case tossed before trial, arguing climate change is an issue best addressed through the political process, not in courtrooms.

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The plaintiffs claim the state’s “systemic authorization, permitting, encouragement and facilitation” of fossil fuels exacerbates the climate crisis, despite what they call an affirmative duty under a 1972 amendment to the Montana Constitution to protect and improve the environment for past and future generations.

They had originally sought an injunction ordering the state to develop a remedial plan or policies to reduce emissions. Seeley rejected that bid in 2021, since she said it would require the court to make policy decisions better left to other branches of government.

The case is among several constitutional climate cases on behalf of youth plaintiffs across the U.S., and is the first of those to head to trial.

(This June 12 story has been corrected to identify Michael Russell as the attorney who delivered the state’s opening statement in paragraphs 8 and 10)

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