‘Historic moment’: First climate action case goes on trial in US

Plaintiffs – aged five to 22 – argue Montana’s promotion of an energy system reliant on fossil fuels violates their right to a clean and healthy environment under the US state’s constitution.

A trial begins on Monday in Helena for Held v State of Montana, the first youth-led constitutional climate case to see its day in court in the United States.

In court papers filed in March 2020, 16 plaintiffs between the ages of five and 22 assert that Montana’s promotion of an energy system reliant on fossil fuels violates their right to a clean and healthy environment under the state constitution. The trial is expected to conclude on June 23.

“Although these cases have been filed all over the country, the other cases have been dismissed before reaching trial,” Michelle Bryan, a natural resources and environmental law professor at the University of Montana, told Al Jazeera.

“So this will be the first time that youth will have gone on the stand and given testimony and scientists will have gone on the stand and given testimony about climate injury and the role of government in preventing climate injury. For that reason alone, it will be a historic moment in climate litigation.”

Barbara Chillcott, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney on the case, told Al Jazeera that viewers of the livestreamed trial can expect exactly that: an opportunity for young people to share stories about how they’ve been harmed by climate change alongside expert climate scientist witnesses.

‘Nuts and bolts of climate change’

The plaintiffs’ case will start “with the basics, the nuts and bolts of climate change, and moving into the harms caused by climate that our plaintiffs are experiencing”, Chillcott says.

It will also cover “Montana’s contribution to the climate crisis as well as the analysis that shows that Montana can move into the renewable energy space and phase out of fossil fuels now – the technology is available”.

For Chillcott, getting this evidence entered into the court record is monumental, both in itself and given the extent to which it can serve as a springboard for other climate cases in jurisdictions across the country.

Should the plaintiffs prevail in their case, Bryan says “We will have in the United States an example of the government being required to consider impacts to climate when it makes fossil fuel-related decisions.”

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It would be up to the state’s legislative and executive branches to amend relevant statutes to match the judge’s order.

In addition to Montana, other US states such as New York and Pennsylvania have similar clauses about clean and healthful environments in their constitutions.

“In those states, they might reach similar outcomes if the plaintiffs are successful,” Bryan notes. “If we have multiple states engaged in that practice and figuring out how to do it, that could create a new practice in agency environmental review.”

She describes the extent to which climate-focused environmental reviews could ultimately bubble up to the federal level as “an open question”.

‘Strategy to avoid litigation’

The beginning of the trial marks the end of concerted efforts by Montana Attorney-General Austin Knudsen and the state’s Republican supermajority to derail the trial.

After failed efforts by Knudsen to persuade Judge Kathy Seeley to dismiss the case and the Montana Supreme Court to reverse Seeley’s decision, the state’s legislature altered two of the statutes corresponding to some of the plaintiffs’ claims in the case.

Voting along party lines, Republicans repealed the state’s 30-year-old energy policy in April and altered the Montana Environmental Policy Act to ban state agencies conducting environmental reviews from evaluating any “greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate” in May.

“The reasons given at the legislature did not mention Held v State when the bill sponsor discussed the reasons for repealing the state energy policy,” Bryan says. “It’s speculation, but it makes sense that the state may have used that as a strategy to avoid litigation.”

On the heels of these developments, Knudsen again unsuccessfully petitioned the state’s Supreme Court to dismiss the case.

Emily Flower, Knudsen’s press secretary, declined to make Knudsen available for an interview. Instead, she supplied Al Jazeera with statements from herself and Kyler Nerison, Knudsen’s communications director.

‘Meritless publicity stunt’

Nerison asserts the lawsuit is “a meritless publicity stunt” designed to increase fundraising for “political activism” despite the fact that no monetary compensation or damages can be awarded in the case and that the plaintiffs are largely represented by non-profit institutions.

Nerison cast the case as the result of climate activists attempting to “use liberal courts to impose their authoritarian climate agenda on Montana”.

He did not respond to a follow-up question about whether or not the state’s use of its conservative legislature to repeal relevant statutes amounted to a similar attempt to further a political agenda.

Flower asserted that “the main part of this case has now been thrown out, and what’s left of the case should also be dismissed”. Flower did not respond to follow-up queries regarding what, specifically, she considered to be the main part of the case.

According to environmental law professor Bryan, each claim a plaintiff brings in a case is freestanding. A fairly routine dismissal of one claim does not impact a plaintiff’s right to go to trial on other claims.

“[The state’s] tactics are kind of desperate. They don’t want to go to trial obviously, yet they’ll be in trial on Monday morning and will have to represent the state as it stands trial for the climate harms it’s caused,” Chillcott says.

“The state’s position is that there’s nothing left to go to trial. Our position is exactly the opposite, that everything is left and we’ll prove our case.”

Source: Al Jazeera