After three years, a climate lawsuit has been brought by 16 youths against the state of Montana come amazingly close, On Monday, Montana District Court Judge Government That the state government’s energy permitting policies violated the youth plaintiff’s right to a healthy environment, which is enshrined in the state constitution of Montana.

The decision did not compel the state to take specific actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or fossil fuel production. But climate law experts say the ruling is an important step forward for the emerging and fast-growing climate litigation body. By directly linking harm to young people to state energy policies and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions, the decision established a strong legal argument that could be a model for other climate cases.

“The core argument of this case is a recurring one,” Sandra Nichols Thiam, an attorney and director of the Environmental Law Institute’s Climate Judiciary Project, told Grist.

In more than a hundred pages, District Judge Cathy Seeley conducted an unusually detailed finding of state wrongdoing and its effects on the young plaintiff’s mental health, physical health and cultural resources. Sealy focused on a provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act, the state law that governs permitting of major infrastructure and energy projects, that explicitly bars state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions when evaluating the projects. prevents. The court concluded emphatically that, without taking into account the climate impacts of its actions, the state of Montana – a major producer of coal, oil and gas Directly caused damage to the plaintiff.

Seely wrote, “The state’s actions exacerbate anthropogenic climate change and further harm Montana’s environment and its citizens, especially its youth.”

Michael Gerard, faculty director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said the decision could boost cases, especially in states that, like Montana, enshrine environmental rights in their constitutions. currently, six states provide the constitutional right to a healthy environment, which Protects access to clean air and water Just as the US Constitution protects freedom of speech and religion.

A Climate lawsuit in Hawaii to go to trial next summer The constitutional right of the state to have a healthy environment is dependent on it. (The plaintiffs in both Heald v. Montana and Nawahin v. Department of Air Transportation are represented by Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit.) Gerard said Montana’s finding that additional greenhouse gas emissions violate that fundamental right, It could easily be cited to bolster legal arguments in Hawaii and similar constitutional cases. Litigants can also use the decision as a model to explain the role of a specific government in exacerbating the climate crisis.

A Whiting Petroleum Company pump jack pulling crude oil near Bainville, Montana.
Matthew Brown/AP Photo

“The important thing the judge said here is that state contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are significant globally,” said Gail Evans, counsel and lead counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. Climate Lawsuit in New Mexico, which does not recognize the constitutional right to a healthy environment. The New Mexico case instead targets a clause in the state’s constitution that directs the government to control pollution and protect clean air and water. The plaintiffs in that case say their state government failed to meet its constitutional duty when it authorized record levels of oil production in the Permian Basin.

But even in cases that don’t involve constitutional rights, the Held v. Montana decision can help provide a clear factual basis for establishing climate impacts and their damages, Thiam said. Evans said the judge’s confirmation provides “a powerful example for other cases across the country” regarding the effects of climate change on youth and Indigenous litigants. In particular, the case can be cited for its factual findings of the unique climate vulnerabilities of children and the mental health effects of an abusive environment, said Gerard.

Yet the Hold v. Montana decision is not without its limitations. In their initial complaintThe plaintiffs asked the court to order the government to develop “a remedial plan” to reduce emissions statewide—a request the court rejected. According to Gerard, this is a fairly expected response, as courts typically avoid questions that can be seen as more political or better dealt with by the legislature.

By declaring the state’s policy unconstitutional, the court essentially required the state of Montana to consider climate change impacts when allowing energy projects. But the court did not compel the state to take any further measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as allowing fewer fossil fuel projects. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Montana state attorney general’s office said plan to appeal the case In the Supreme Court of Montana.

Thiam said that for any emerging field of environmental litigation, it takes time to establish key facts and win big in court. Climate litigation underway around the world more than doubled in the last five yearsAccording to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Program and the Sabin Center on Climate Change Law, the majority of cases have been brought in the US. As the number of cases continues to rise, environmental law experts say we can expect to see more court victories.

“This decision will be inspirational in the United States and globally,” Gerard said. “We’ve seen that when there is a successful trial, it can lead to other cases around the world.”

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