Young environmental activists won what experts called a landmark legal victory Monday when a Montana judge ruled that by allowing fossil fuel development, state agencies are violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.
The ruling in this first-of-its-kind case in the US comes as an addition to a small number of court decisions around the world that establish a governmental duty to protect citizens from climate change.
If it stands, the ruling could set an important legal precedent, although experts said the immediate impact was limited and state officials vowed to try to overturn the decision on appeal.
District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found the state’s policy in evaluating fossil fuel permit applications — which does not allow agencies to audit greenhouse gas emissions — to be unconstitutional.
It is the first time a US court has ruled against a government for violating a constitutional right over climate change, said Richard Lazarus, a professor at Harvard Law School.
“Of course it’s a state court, not a federal court, and the ruling is based on a state constitution and not the US Constitution, but it’s still clearly a big, landmark victory for climate prosecutors,” Lazarus wrote in an email.
The judge dismissed the state’s argument that Montana’s emissions were insignificant, saying they were “a significant contributor” to climate change. Montana is a major producer of coal for power generation and has large oil and gas reserves.
“Each additional tonne of greenhouse gas emissions compounds plaintiffs’ injuries and risks irreversible climate damage,” Seeley wrote.
However, it is up to the Montana legislature to decide how to bring the state’s policies into line. That leaves little chance of rapid change in a fossil fuel-favored state where Republicans dominate the state house.
Few states, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York, have constitutions with similar environmental protections.
“The ruling really offers nothing but emotional support for the many cases that seek to establish a public trust right, a human right or a federal constitutional right,” to a healthy environment, said James Huffman, dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland .
State officials had filed numerous motions to dismiss the case in an attempt to derail the case and prevent the trial.
Claire Vlases was 17 when she became a plaintiff in this case. She is now 20 and works as a ski instructor. She said climate change is affecting every aspect of her life.
“I think a lot of young people feel really helpless, especially when it comes to the future,” Vlases said, adding that she expects Montana lawmakers to respect the state’s constitution and abide by the court’s decision hold.
“Hopefully this is one for the story,” she said.
Emily Flower, spokeswoman for Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, called the verdict “absurd” and said the office plans to appeal.
She criticized Seeley for allowing the plaintiffs to perform what Flower called a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt.”
“Montanans cannot be held responsible for climate change,” she said. “The same legal theory has been rejected by federal courts and courts in more than a dozen states. It should have been here too.”
Attorneys for the 16 plaintiffs, aged between 5 and 22, presented evidence during the two-week trial that rising carbon emissions are the cause.
Plaintiffs said these changes harmed their mental and physical health, as smoke from wildfires suffocated the air they breathe and droughts dried up rivers that support agriculture, fishing, wildlife and recreation.
Native Americans who testified for the plaintiffs said climate change is affecting their ceremonies and traditional food sources.
The state argued that even if Montana ceased CO2 production entirely, it would have no impact on a global scale, as states and countries around the world contribute to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.
A cure must bring relief, the state said, or there is no cure at all.
Seeley said prosecutors did not provide a compelling reason why they did not assess the greenhouse gas emissions.
She dismissed the notion that Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions were insignificant, noting that renewable energy was “technically feasible and economically advantageous,” citing statements from the process that predicted Montana would generate 80% of its existing energy from fossil fuels by 2030 could replace.
Since its inception, Our Children’s Trust has raised more than $20 million to pursue its lawsuits in state and federal courts. No previous trials came to trial.
Carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burned, stores heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for global warming.
This spring, carbon dioxide levels in the air reached their highest level in over 4 million years, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month.
According to scientists, July was the hottest month on record worldwide and probably the warmest that human civilization has ever experienced.