(CN) — A Montana judge heard closing arguments Tuesday in a landmark climate change trial against the state, concluding a shorter-than-expected bench trial that lasted seven days.
Lewis and Clark County Judge Kathy Seeley will now decide whether Montana is violating its own constitution by prohibiting state agencies from taking into account climate change when deciding whether to approve new projects.
The case was brought by 16 plaintiffs, now ages 5 to 22, and funded by the nonprofit Our Children's Trust.
"The climate crisis is at home in Montana, and has diminished the lives of each and every one of the plaintiffs," said Our Children's Trust attorney Nathan Ballinger in his closing statement.
The plaintiffs have argued that climate change and its effects – particularly wildfires, drought, floods and scorching summers — have a disproportionate impact on young people, both physically and psychologically. Most of the 16 plaintiffs testified about how climate change has curtailed their ability to enjoy the outdoors — to run, hunt, fish and play sports.
This harm, they say, violates the state's constitution — specifically Article IX, which reads, "The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations." Article II also states that the document's protections apply to people under 18 years old.
Rather than monetary damages, the plaintiffs have instead asked the judge to force Montana to end the so-called "MEPA exception," a recently passed law that bars state agencies from considering climate change and greenhouse gas emissions in their permit approval process.
"The state approves every fossil fuel permit with zero consideration of the harm to children," Ballinger said. "Montana's contribution to anthropogenic climate change harms, and the impacts of Montana's emissions are both local and immediate as well as global and long-lasting. Every ton matters."
Throughout the case, the plaintiffs have suggested a number of other remedies for the judge to consider. Seeley could, for example, enjoin the state from approving any new fossil fuel activity, like a new power plant or coal mining operation.
On Tuesday, Ballinger said the judge should declare that "350 parts per million is the constitutional standard necessary to protect a stable climate system." The measurement refers to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that climate scientists say will stabilize the planet's warming. The world is currently averaging more than 400 parts per million.
The proposal illustrated a key point of tension in the case: climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution. Even if Montana was transformed into a carbon-neutral state overnight, it would have only a small impact on the global crisis.
And that has been largely the crux of the state's argument.
"Climate change is an issue much larger than one Montana can address on its own," Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said in his closing argument. He derided the case as a "week-long airing of political grievances that properly belongs in the legislature, not the court of law."
He argued that the exception under MEPA — short for the Montana Environmental Policy Act — was a product of the democratically elected legislature. To throw it out would be to upset the state's separation of powers.
Montana called just three witnesses in the state's day-long defense on Monday – two employees of the Department of Environmental Quality and one expert witness, an economist from a conservative think tank. His testimony was seriously wounded when he couldn't cite his source for the exact amount of Montana's greenhouse gas emissions in 2022.
The state declined to call a number of people on its list of witnesses it submitted before trial, including a climate scientist and a mental health expert.
The judge asked both sides to submit briefs on their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law within two weeks. A ruling could be weeks or even months after that.
The trial is believed to be the first in the U.S. to address whether a governmental entity should be forced to mitigate climate change. A similar lawsuit in Oregon, also funded by Our Children's Trust, is on track for its own trial. Earlier this month, a federal judge allowed the youth plaintiffs in that case leave to amend their suit.Follow @hillelaron
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