Youth plaintiffs, climate change, MT
Youth plaintiffs share a snack outside the courthouse after closing arguments in the landmark Held vs Montana climate change lawsuit. Photo credit: © Robin Loznak/ZUMA Press Wire

The ruling, which Montana Judge Kathy Seeley handed down on Monday, is the first of its kind in the US.

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In a historic decision, a Montana judge has declared that state laws promoting fossil fuels while disregarding their impact on climate change are unconstitutional because they violate the rights of young people to a clean environment.

The ruling, which Judge Kathy Seeley handed down on Monday, is the first of its kind in the US. Similar lawsuits have been brought around the country in an effort to force courts to act where state and national governments have failed.

“Plaintiffs have proven that as children and youth, they are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts,” the judge wrote in her 103-page decision, adding that the harm caused to the plaintiffs “will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change.”

While the state has already said it will appeal the decision, the youthful plaintiffs and their lawyers hailed the ruling.

“Today, for the first time in US 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,” said Julia Olson, Chief Legal Counsel and Executive Director of Our Children’s Trust, the group that helped the plaintiffs bring these lawsuits.

Olson called the ruling 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.”

Montana had always been considered to be one state in which courts might rule in favor of young people because its constitution guarantees residents the right to a “clean and healthful environment.”

Nate Bellinger, the group’s senior staff attorney, said the decision holds the “political branches accountable for actions exacerbating the climate crisis and causing harm to the state’s youngest and most vulnerable people.”

The young plaintiffs also celebrated the decision.

“This ruling, this case; it is truly historic. We are heard! Frankly the elation and joy in my heart is overwhelming in the best way,” said Kian, one of the plaintiffs only identified by their first name. “We set the precedent not only for the United States, but for the world.”

In fact, children across the globe have been winning similar lawsuits already, although forcing the US to act would be the biggest victory for the movement.

So far, their track record in the United States had been poor. While the number of similar lawsuits is increasing globally, more than a dozen had already been dismissed in the US.

That makes Monday’s ruling especially sweet for the activists.

This decision sets important precedent for other constitutional climate cases in the US, and, most importantly, gives these youth plaintiffs some hope for a better future,” said Barbara Chillcott, a senior attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center.

The ruling also received national attention.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), thanked the young people for winning “an enormous victory” and expressed his hope that the federal government will “follow their example and file lawsuits to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for their role in the climate crisis.”


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