(CN) — Opening arguments in Montana's landmark youth-led climate change case, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. to go to trial, kicked off on Monday.
The suit was filed in 2020 by 16 plaintiffs, now ages 5 to 22, and seeks no monetary damages. Instead, the plaintiffs in the case are asking the judge to find that the state has been violating Article XI of its own constitution, which reads, "The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations."
"Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on its rivers and lakes before its protections can be invoked," the plaintiffs' attorney Roger Sullivan said in his 35-minute opening statement Monday. "Because of the now unstable climate system caused by fossil fuel-generated gasses, Montana’s environment is neither clean or healthful."
Sullivan said that climate scientists believe Montana "has already warmed between 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit" during the last 50 years, "significantly more than the global average." He said the warming causes a slew of extreme weather events like drought and wildfires, which have an especially negative impact on young people, who are more vulnerable to asthma.
He also argued that Montana is particularly culpable for climate change. The state's total carbon dioxide emissions per year, he said, are equal to that of Argentina, Pakistan and the Netherlands, despite having only a fraction of those countries' population.
"The defendants have never denied a permit for fossil fuel activities in Montana," Sullivan said. That's by design, he argued – in 2011, the Montana Legislature banned courts from considering climate change as an environmental impact as part its environmental reviews.
Sullivan said the judge should declare that act unconstitutional, and should also enjoin the state "from approving fossil fuel activities."
"Restoring climate stability will take time," he concluded. "But every ton of CO2 we keep out of the air matters."
Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell gave a short, dismissive five-minute opening statement for the defense, saying, "In reality, the substance of this case is far more boring than the plaintiffs make it."
He pointed out that Montana's carbon emissions had gone down recently, and that its environmental laws had little impact on a problem that was clearly a global one.
"Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference,” he said. “Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator.”
Three of the plaintiffs were called to testify on Monday, including Rikki Held, a 22-year-old resident of Broadus, Montana, with a population of less than 500. At one point, she appeared overcome with emotion as she described the impacts of climate change on her family's ranch and hotel business, saying, "It's obvious what's happening."
When asked by her attorney if she was optimistic about the future, Held replied, "Yes. Sometimes when I think about climate change it’s stressful. but you need to do something about it."
All three plaintiffs testified about dealing with extreme weather events, including wildfires, drought and floods. They all said they were afraid of what the world would look like in a few decades. Grace Gibson-Snyder, a 19-year-old from Missoula, said she wasn't sure if she could morally justify having children. And Eva, a 17-year-old plaintiff who has declined to publicly reveal her last name because she is a minor, said that when thinking about climate change, she feels "panicked."
"My future feels uncertain," she said. "I really don’t know how it’s going to play out."
Two other witnesses testified Monday. One was Mae Nan Ellingson, the youngest delegate at Montana's 1972 constitutional convention. She recalled arguing to include strong environmental protections in the constitution, including the clause at issue that she said was intended to allow people to file lawsuits seeking injunctive relief over environmental damage.
The other was Steven Running, a professor at the University of Montana and a renowned science expert who once served on the board of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, and who has co-authored reports for the commission. His testimony largely revolved around the science of climate change and its global impact.
"If we don't stabilize this, it’s hard to know where the planet will be in another century," Running said. He quoted from an IPCC report which read, "There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all."
Still, Running stressed the problem of climate change was a solvable. All the world had to do, he said, was return to the emissions levels of 1988. "This is well within humanity's ability."
During cross examination, the defense attorney tried to get Running to admit that climate change was a global problem, and that Montana was hardly unique in both its contributions to carbon emissions and the impacts felt by those living in the state.
When asked by the defense attorney what impact a victory for the plaintiffs would have on global climate change, Running said, "We can’t tell in advance."
"What has been shown," he added, "is that when a significant social movement is needed, it’s often started by one or two or three people." If Montana was to drastically cut its carbon footprint, he said, "we can’t know how many states would decide, that’s the right thing to do and that’s what we’re going to do."
The bench trial, overseen by Lewis and Clark County Judge Kathy Seeley, is expected to last two weeks. In 2021, she ruled against Montana's motion to dismiss the suit, writing that the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that the state was "responsible for a significant amount of [the country's] carbon emissions." Last month, Seeley denied the defendants' motion for summary judgement.
The suit is funded by the nonprofit Our Children's Trust, which is bringing similar litigation in other states. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Oregon ruled that Juliana v. United States can proceed to trial.Follow @hillelaron
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