The US’s first-ever trial in a constitutional climate lawsuit kicked off on 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.
“It’s 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 had experienced due to the climate crisis, the state objected, saying her remarks were “speculative”. The judge agreed, saying she was not a climate expert and therefore could not 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 would feel more optimistic, she said, if the case received 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.”
Steven Running, professor emeritus of ecosystem and conservation sciences at the University of Montana, also took the stand, detailing how the climate crisis has contributed to the increasing severity and frequency of disruptive weather events such as extreme heat and drought in Montana and globally.
“I think Montana and really everywhere else needs to, as rapidly as possible, quit burning fossil fuels,” said Running, who was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which he won the Nobel Peace prize in 2007. “It’s quite straightforward.”
As he questioned Running on the stand, Philip Gregory, an attorney for the plaintiffs, invoked a 2023 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate science body. But Mark Stermitz, an attorney for the state, objected on the grounds that Gregory’s reference qualified as legal “hearsay”. Gregory, for his part, noted that the report was a matter of the public record; the judge denied the objection.
In cross-examination, Stermitz asked Running to clarify whether or not Montana can take on the climate crisis on its own. Running said that the state could not, but said that by taking action, Montana could inspire other states and even other countries to do the same.
“What has been shown in history over and over and over again is that when a significant social movement is needed, it’s often been started by one or two or three people,” Running said.
Shortly after, Grace Gibson-Snyder, a 19-year-old plaintiff from Missoula, Montana, testified about the ways wildfire smoke has impaired her ability to play soccer outdoors in her hometown. She recalled a game during her senior year of high school in 2021, which went on for just 20 min before it was called off due to the smoky conditions.
“As we were running, sprinting up and down the field, it just fills your lungs,” she said.
Gibson-Snyder said she has long dreamed of raising a family in her “beautiful” home state, but is not sure she can stomach the thought of raising children amid worsening climate breakdown.
“I’m not sure if I can morally or ethically have children of my own,” she said.
The last witness to testify Monday was 17-year-old plaintiff Eva, whose home in Livingston, Montana, is a “two- to five-minute walk” from her favorite river, the Yellowstone. (Eva’s last name was not mentioned because she is a minor.)
“I have a lot of really beautiful memories of that place,” she said.
But in recent years, the climate crisis has taken a toll on her beloved river. In 2016, a parasite – which experts linked to the crisis – killed off tens of thousands of fish, forcing officials to close the river. And in 2022, the river experienced devastating floods, which inundated many homes and businesses in Evas’s community.
“It made me feel very, very scared,” she said.
It wasn’t the first time Eva saw devastation from flooding. Until a few years ago, her family lived just outside of Livingston, but in 2018, floods toppled the bridge her family used to get to town. Officials built a temporary replacement, but the following year, floods took it out, too, forcing her family to take a nearly-half-hour detour to get into Livingston each day – and, ultimately convinced them to move.
Eva, who was 14 when the case was filed, said the climate crisis makes her future feel “uncertain”. But the lawsuit, she said, is a way of being “heard” even though she’s too young to vote.
“Doing this is a way of getting my voice out there,” she said.
Dharna Noor in Helena, Montana
Published: 2023-06-13 01:45:03