How young Montana residents made a case for climate action in court

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Climate-concerned youth advocates have officially pleaded their groundbreaking case for urgent climate action(opens in a new tab) in front of a Montana court this week. While not the only legal attempt of its kind — and certainly not anticipated to be the last — it was the first constitutional climate case to successfully go to trial in the United States. 

And it signals a renewed urgency among some activists to have the courts weigh in before it’s too late. 

The case, Held v. Montana, has been brought before the court by 16 young residents and Our Children’s Trust(opens in a new tab), a nonprofit public interest law firm that represents youth in climate litigation. With the help of the organization, the Montana plaintiffs argued that the state has an obligation “to protect the air, waters, wildlife and their public lands that are threatened by drought, heat, fires, smoke, and floods,” as well as the harm caused by fossil fuel extraction.

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Other cases in the United States have tried and failed to establish this kind of accountability. In 2015, a group of 21 adolescents and young adults sued the federal government(opens in a new tab) for infringing upon their constitutional right to a stable future, citing the government’s insistence on supporting “an energy system that emits potent heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”

In 2020, the case, known as Juliana v. United States and also led by Our Children’s Trust, was officially thrown out, with the court deciding it wasn’t in its capacity to address such a widespread problem as climate change. But in 2023, a U.S. District Court Judge granted the group a motion for leave to file a Second Amended Complaint, giving the case a potential path forward(opens in a new tab).

Over the past decade, Our Children’s Trust has spread these efforts across the country, advancing climate cases in every state(opens in a new tab). Climate cases are pending in Florida, Hawaii, Utah, and Virginia.

Globally, climate activists have long attempted to use the legal protections offered by their governments and international bodies to halt the climate crisis. In 2019, a group of 16 young people, including climate activists Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Villaseñor, filed an official complaint(opens in a new tab) to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child protesting the lack of government action. In 2022, Thunberg and 600 other young people under the age of 26 (affiliated with an initiative known as Aurora(opens in a new tab)) signed on to a potential lawsuit against the country of Sweden — the court allowed the group to file the lawsuit(opens in a new tab) in March.  

While the overwhelming lack of precedent speaks to the uphill battle for those forging ahead on a legal route to government action, 2023 has already been called a watershed moment for climate litigation(opens in a new tab). With similar youth-led attempts taking place in Canada and Mexico, as well as numerous other climate cases across Europe, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, the Montana case joins a massive legal (and PR) push to get governments to step up. 

As those following the Held v. Montana case await the judge’s verdict, here’s how the plaintiffs, flanked by experts across related fields, argued against the state’s lack of intervention.

Youth plaintiffs walk down a path lined with supporters.


Credit: Robin Loznak / Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust

An argument for constitutional rights

The trial opened on June 12, beginning with remarks from Mae Nan Ellingson, who was the youngest delegate of the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention, according to Our Children’s Trust. Ellingson introduced the lawsuit’s overarching argument: that the state’s own legal code enshrines a right to a clean environment for its citizens. 

“At the time, Montana was the only state that had a constitutionally-enshrined right to a clean and healthful climate,” the plaintiffs argued, “but now Montana’s climate is ‘neither clean nor healthful.'”

The case is referring to Article IX of the state constitution(opens in a new tab), which reads, in part, “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” The lawsuit argues that House Bill 971(opens in a new tab) — a state law prohibiting regulators from taking greenhouse gas emissions into account when approving a new project — violates this article. 

A group of plaintiffs and lawyers sit and converse in a court room.


Credit: William Campbell / Getty Images

If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs and deems the law unconstitutional, the state’s Republican-led Congress and Gov. Greg Gianforte would be next to respond, but they’ve indicated there is “no basis under state law for rejecting permits for projects, even if their climate impacts are disclosed(opens in a new tab).” This means a favorable ruling wouldn’t have any immediate consequences, but it would add to a legal precedent that governments have a duty to protect citizens from climate change.

An argument for land stewardship

The plaintiffs dedicated a significant portion of their argument outlining just how much devastation unregulated projects and unaddressed climate change have already caused — and how much worse it can get for Montana, a state treasured for its natural landscapes and resources. 

“We are at a decision point about taking action on climate change,” said Peter Erickson, a climate change policy researcher for the Stockholm Environment Institute in Seattle, Washington. “The world community has decided we must. Montana continues to issue fossil fuel permits.”

According to Erickson’s testimony, Montana is among the top coal- and oil-producing states and contributes a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions — the sixth-highest energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, per capita — due to unregulated fossil fuel consumption, extraction, and infrastructure.


“When you have this relationship to the land, it’s hard seeing the way climate change is affecting it, the harm that’s being done.”

– Sariel, Held v. Montana plaintiff

Other witnesses like Dr. Dan Fagre, a Department of Interior employee, spoke to the need to preserve Montana’s 7,000-year-old glaciers(opens in a new tab) in Glacier National Park. Dr. Jack Stanford, director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station, testified to the documented damage of freshwater ecosystems. Many witnesses noted threats posed to the portions of historic Yellowstone National Park stewarded by Montana’s government.

“If this court declared these anti-climate change analysis laws unconstitutional, it would make a profound difference to mitigate the harm of greenhouse gas emissions,” said witness Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs at the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC).

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Indigenous voices were also included in the case for state action, like Shane Doyle (Crow Tribe) and his children, and Michael Durglo, Jr., head of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Tribal Historic Department.

“When you have this relationship to the land, it’s hard seeing the way climate change is affecting it, the harm that’s being done,” said Sariel, a 20-year-old plaintiff who is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Witnesses argued that the state has an obligation to address human health needs impacted by the climate crisis, as well, like comments on human-caused climate change and long-term child health from pediatrician Dr. Lori Byron and climate scientist Dr. Steven Running.

An argument for human compassion

Youth voices rang through the trial, accompanying expert and witness testimony in an appeal illustrating the need to safeguard their futures. 

The group spoke to the fear of ecological disaster and extreme weather events, to the impact of the climate crisis on their health and play, and to the threat of climate change on their passions and future careers dependent on Montana’s ecology. 

“When I think about summer, I think about smoke. It sounds like a dystopian movie, but it’s real life,” said Claire V., a 20-year-old plaintiff. Mica, 15, said he loves running but was recently diagnosed with asthma and is particularly vulnerable to wildfire smoke.

A large group of youth plaintiffs walk down a street.


Credit: Robin Loznak / Courtesy of Our Children’s Trust

Rikki, 22, a fifth-generation Montanan, spoke about working outdoors in extreme heat and smoke on her family’s ranch, and 19-year-old Grace described her high school soccer practices getting “smoked out.” Eva, 17, recalled filling sandbags for hours to fight flooding from the Yellowstone River nearby her home.

Some even displayed art pieces and spoke about their hobbies on the stand, connecting the documented scientific and legal arguments back to a human face.

“The kids have told you this week very compellingly how their world is different,” said child psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren. “They are very aware of something called intergenerational injustices. Their world is spinning out of their control, and they have firsthand experience.”

A group of supporters stand in a park holding signs that read,


Credit: William Campbell / Getty Images

The state’s defense

The state of Montana, meanwhile, held one day of testimony and called just three witnesses(opens in a new tab), arguing that Montana’s role in global emissions was not significant enough to warrant the lawsuit. In other instances, state legislators have called the case a “show trial(opens in a new tab).”

“Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference. Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator,” said Michael Russell, assistant attorney general, in his opening statement. 

The responsibility argument(opens in a new tab) is a common refrain in climate action conversations. “What we heard in plaintiffs’ case was not justiciable controversy, but rather a weeklong hearing of political grievances that properly belongs to the legislature, not a court of law,” Russell said.

In response, Nate Bellinger, senior staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, gave the opposing group’s closing statement: “Like other monumental constitutional cases before, the state of Montana comes before this court because of a pervasive systemic infringement of rights. The climate crisis is at home in Montana, and it diminishes the lives of each and every one of the plaintiffs…

“The state says this is a fight reserved for the legislature. But we live in a constitutional democracy where fundamental rights are not subject to the outcome of elections.”

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