Historic climate victory will open legislation floodgates

The Director of Climate, Economic and Social Justice, and Corporate Accountability Programme at Amnesty International has described the landmark US court ruling in Montana as “historic” predicting that human rights is set to play an ever bigger role in the fight against climate change.

Marta Schaaf made her comments following the decision in the US state of Montana in a case brought by 16 plaintiffs, aged five to 22, which alleged the state’s government’s pro-fossil fuel policies contributed to climate change and therefore breached their right under the state’s constitution to a “clean and healthful environment”. Held v. State of Montana was the first ever constitutional climate trial in US history.

The State has 60 days to decide whether to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

The case arose after legislators in Montana had outlawed consideration of the climate crisis in decisions regarding coal mining and other projects.

In the case, brought by non-profit law firm, Our Children’s Trust on behalf of the plaintiffs, the court found that this prohibition violated the rights of the plaintiffs, who experienced serious harm to their mental and physical health due to climate change and air pollution.

Judge Kathy Seeley also ruled that a law which prohibited government agencies from considering climate impacts when deciding whether or not to permit large energy projects meant Montana is contributing to the climate crisis.

The judge’s 103-page ruling made a series of conclusions which may open the way for similar cases across the US.

They included:

  • “Each additional ton of GHGs [greenhouse gases] emitted into the atmosphere exacerbates impacts to the climate.”
  • “Every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries.”
  • “Plaintiffs’ injuries will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change.”
  • “Plaintiffs have proven that as children and youth, they are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts.”
  • “The State authorises fossil fuel activities without analysing GHGs or climate impacts, which result in GHG emissions in Montana and abroad that have caused and continue to exacerbate anthropogenic climate change.”
  • The order provides meaningful redress to plaintiffs’ injuries because “the amount of additional GHG emissions emitted into the climate system today and in the coming decade will impact the long-term severity of the heating and the severity of Plaintiffs’ injuries.”
  • “The Defendants have the authority under the statutes by which they operate to protect Montana’s environment and natural resources, protect the health and safety of Montana’s youth, and alleviate and avoid climate impacts by limiting fossil fuel activities that occur in Montana when the MEPA analysis shows that those activities are resulting in degradation or other harms which violate the Montana Constitution.”

Schaaf said: “This is an historic ruling demonstrating the vital importance of youth activism in pushing for the change we need to avert a growing climate catastrophe and will help drive forward climate justice.

“The plaintiffs were represented by the visionary non-profit law firm, Our Children’s Trust, and the ruling is an important victory in efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of the climate emergency caused by the use of fossil fuels. It demonstrates once again that the climate crisis is a human rights crisis and that everyone has a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Human rights are inextricably linked with climate and ecological stability.”

“It sends a strong signal to authorities everywhere that they bear a legal obligation to ensure this and other human rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled or that they could face similar legal challenges,” she added. “To ensure that the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming are reduced, authorities must ensure a full, fast and fair phasing out of fossil fuel production and use, and place moratoriums on the development of new fossil fuel resources.”

“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 with Our Children’s Trust “In a sweeping win for our clients, the Honourable Judge Kathy Seeley declared Montana’s fossil fuel-promoting laws unconstitutional and enjoined their implementation. As fires rage in the West, fuelled by fossil fuel pollution, the 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. This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate. More rulings like this will certainly come.”

“This is a landmark decision establishing enforceable principles of intergenerational justice,” said attorney Roger Sullivan, of McGarvey Law. “Simply stated, the government elected by this generation must abide its obligation to pass on a stable climate system to future generations.”