Court sides with kids who sued Montana over climate change

Court sides with kids who sued Montana over climate change

A court in Montana on Monday recognized young people’s rights to protection from climate change — siding with a group of young people who alleged that state policy violates their rights to such protection.

A group of 16 young plaintiffs, who were between the ages of 2 and 18 when the case began, sued the state of Montana saying that its energy policy violated their rights to a clean and healthy environment.

In a new ruling Monday, District Judge Kathy Seeley ruled in their favor — and against a Montana state law that prohibited the consideration of climate impacts in the process for approving energy projects.

“By prohibiting analysis of GHG emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate…the [Montana Environmental Policy Act] Limitation violates Youth Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment and is unconstitutional on its face,” Seeley wrote.

The ruling also said that the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and climate change have proven to be a “substantial factor” in bringing harm and injury to the plaintiffs.

The case follows other similar cases around the country about children’s rights to protection from climate change that failed to gain traction in the court system, including one that made such claims at the national level but was thrown out a few years ago.

However, the Montana case invoked a provision in the state’s constitution that establishes a right to a “a clean and healthful environment” — which the judge appeared to reference in her decision.

Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told The Hill that this measure in the state’s constitution made all the difference in the case.

“That’s what made the big difference here — the fact that this was brought under the environmental rights provision of the state’s constitution. That was the key to victory,” Gerrard said.

He noted that similar legislation is pending in Hawaii, which is one of just a few states that also has an environmental rights provision in its constitution.

“It strengthens that case in Hawaii,” Gerrard said of the ruling.

In a written statement, Julia Olson, chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, which represented the youths, hailed the decision as a “turning point.”

“Today, for the first time in U.S. history, a court ruled on the merits of a case that the government violated the constitutional rights of children through laws and actions that promote fossil fuels, ignore climate change, and disproportionately imperil young people,” Olson said.

“As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today’s ruling in Montana is a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos,” she added. “More rulings like this will certainly come.”

On the other hand, the office of Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen (R) called the ruling “absurd” and said it would appeal the decision.

“This ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiffs’ attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt,” Emily Flower, spokeswoman for Knudsen, said in an emailed statement.

“Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. It should have been here as well, but they found an ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward and earn herself a spot in their next documentary. The State will appeal,” Flower added.

Updated at 5:37 pm.

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