The US’s first-ever trial in a constitutional climate lawsuit kicked off Monday morning in a packed courtroom in Helena, Montana.
The case, Held v Montana, was brought in 2020 by 16 plaintiffs between the ages of five and 22 from around the state who allege state officials violated their constitutional right to a healthy environment by enacting pro-fossil fuel policies.
In opening statements, Roger Sullivan, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, explained that climate change is fueling drought, wildfires, extreme heat and other environmental disasters throughout Montana, taking a major toll on the young plaintiffs’ health and wellbeing. There is a “scientific consensus”, he noted, that these changes can be traced back to the burning of fossil fuels.
He described how some plaintiffs have asthma that has been worsened by abundant wildfire smoke in recent years. Some love to hunt and fish but have seen stocks deteriorate. One plaintiff works as a ski instructor – a job threatened by warm winter temperatures and decreasing snowfall. And others are members of Indigenous tribes whose cultural practices are threatened by climate change-linked shifts in weather patterns, he said.
Montana is responsible for more planet-heating pollution than some countries, said Sullivan. Without urgent action, these climate consequences will only get worse.
But the state argued that Montana’s emissions are “too minuscule” to make any difference in the climate crisis.
“Climate change is a global issue,” Michael D Russel, assistant attorney general, said in opening remarks for the state.
Montana’s state’s constitution has since 1972 guaranteed that the “state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations”. As the youngest delegate to the state’s 1972 constitutional convention, Mae Nan Ellingson, the first expert witness who testified on Monday, had a role in crafting that language.
“I’m proud of this constitution. I’m particularly proud of the right to a clean and healthful environment,” she said in her testimony. “I’m honored that I’m able to be here and share my thoughts.”
Rikki Held, the 22-year-old named plaintiff in the lawsuit, testified about the impacts the climate crisis has had on her family’s ranch outside Broadus, in the south-east corner of the state. She grew up on the ranch, helping raise livestock and build fences. But she’s seen dramatic changes on the ranch since she was a young child.
“Some of the impacts are just with wildfires, drought, flooding, more extreme weather events such as windstorm and hail, changes in wildlife behavior,” she said.
Drought and decreased snowfall have both threatened the ranch’s water supply, making it harder to provide for her family’s livestock, while smoke from wildfires has made it difficult to work outside. Seeing these changes has also affected her psychological health, Held said.
“Its just stressful ’cause that’s my life and my home is there,” she said with tears in her eyes.
As Held spoke about the psychological impacts she’s experienced due to the climate crisis, the state objected, saying her remarks were “speculative”. The judge agreed, saying she is not a climate expert and therefore cannot directly attribute changes in her mental health to the climate crisis itself.
Held went on to say that although she struggles, she is optimistic about the future of the climate fight. She’d feel more optimistic, she said, if the case receives a favorable judgment.
“I would feel more hopeful for the future, the future of this state, this ranch, and more hopeful for having a healthful environment,” she said. “ I know that climate change is a global issue, but Montana has to take responsibility for our part in that.”
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