Last week, in the capital of the state holding the largest recoverable coal reserves and the fifth-highest per capita combustion emissions in the country, a trial court shook the fossil fuel establishment by invalidating legislation that helps sustain the dominance of fossil fuels in Montana. The ruling was also the first win on the merits for a youth climate case in the United States.
Montana is heating faster than the global average, and the rate of its warming is accelerating. The resulting floods, fires, air pollution, and biodiversity loss have made national headlines in the past several years.
The August 14 trial court decision in Held v. Montana connected the dots. It documents that fossil fuel use primarily caused the adverse effects of climate change. Its heartbreaking detail on the impacts to real children that already occur should awaken the public to the urgent need to transition to clean energy. It also provides a roadmap for other people in other places (such as the children suing the United States government in an Oregon federal court) to prove injury to a judge.
The court’s findings
Held v. Montana is one of many cases where children have sued states to challenge government policies that worsen climate change and endanger their future health and economic prospects. No state court had yet provided children with a clear victory. Held is significant as the first case to provide court-ordered relief.
The outcome of the case is an order declaring unconstitutional a Montana statute that prohibited the state from considering the climate-related effects of its decisions, especially those supporting fossil fuel production and consumption. The court also declared unconstitutional another provision that weakened the state environmental impact analysis law by preventing courts from overturning state decisions (such as coal mining permits) that violated the law.
The result of Held v. Montana will influence other lawsuits around the country because the detailed judicial findings are based on overwhelming evidence. The court heard from experts and concluded that laws promoting fossil fuel combustion cause harm to kids by destabilizing the climate, which has local impacts in greater spring floods, worse summer droughts, and unhealthy air from wildfires.
The judge’s hard-hitting findings effectively translate science into plain-language facts. No impartial, disinterested U.S. court to date has weighed evidence and ordered relief for current harms and foreseeable dangers of climate change to the well-being of children.
State and federal agencies have made similar findings about the dangers posed by fossil fuel use. Courts generally defer to such determinations as within agency expertise. But ordinary plaintiffs face a higher burden of proof. They must provide and explain technical evidence to a judge or jury. They do not receive the benefit of the doubt. It is unusual for a court to have heard expert testimony and made detailed determinations, such as:
- Science is unequivocal that dangerous impacts to the climate are occurring due to human activities, primarily from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
- The cumulative effect of greenhouse gas (especially carbon dioxide) emissions causes the impacts to the climate being experienced today. Human activity and the burning of fossil fuels have accelerated the accumulation of carbon dioxide to the point that 42 percent of the total has accumulated in the last 30 years.
- Carbon dioxide levels have fluctuated throughout history, but the atmospheric rate of increase is 100 times faster than in natural fluctuations and cycles. Even more troubling, it is happening in a very short timeframe that is unprecedented in the geological record.
The Montana court, like most courts, had to find reasonably foreseeable causation in order to grant relief to the young people who sued to stop the harms. The court’s pathbreaking analysis connects state policies promoting fossil fuel use to specific harms suffered by the children, such as respiratory problems, loss of family income, and property damage.
The court also found the weight of the evidence submitted proved that — if the state reversed course and began to consider renewable energy alternatives — it would be technically and economically feasible for it to replace 80 percent of fossil fuel energy by 2030 and 100 percent no later than 2050 (but as early as 2035). This transition, the court determined, would eliminate $21 billion in climate costs in 2050 and reduce total energy prices for Montanans by 70 percent.
The experts proved that the total energy, health, and climate cost savings would amount to a staggering $29 billion per year.Budget hawks and deficit scolds take note: that is a 91 percent reduction from the costs to Montanans compared to continued use of fossil fuels.
The children’s win may be temporary, as the state pledged to appeal the legal holding to the Montana Supreme Court. However, appellate courts — including state supreme courts — are bound by a trial court’s findings of facts. Montana did not vigorously challenge the experts and documents on which the district court based its factual conclusions. That suggests that the state attorney general’s strategy is to win on legal procedural issues in the appellate court. It also indicates that the climate deniers pushing the continuation of fossil fuel dominance in Montana knew they would lose on the facts.
The potential influence of the case
The influence of Held v. Montana in other states is limited because very few state constitutions share Montana’s “right to a clean and healthful environment.” The children also benefited from another constitutional provision that obligates the legislature to provide “adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation” and “to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.” That said, states like Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and New York, which do recognize a citizen’s right to a healthful environment, will likely produce outcomes similar to the one in Montana.
Most state courts would not find a constitutional basis for overturning statutes because their citizens lack a right to a clean and healthful environment. But Held v. Montana indicates that other lawsuits, based on other legal theories, such as public nuisance, could strengthen the momentum to wean Americans from their fossil fuel dependence.
Held v. Montana bolsters confidence in the generalist state courts — accustomed to routine criminal trials and slip-and-fall suits — to digest scientific and economic evidence. The Montana court understood and communicated that reasonably foreseeable impacts of continued fossil fuel use will degrade economies, the environment, and human health. The case also explains how a rapid transition to renewable energy is technically feasible and will save even a coal-rich state like Montana tens of billions of dollars a year (compared to continued dependence on fossil fuels).