Lawsuit Pits Young Climate Change Activists Against a Fossil Fuel-Friendly State at Trial

June 13, 2023by Amy Beth Hanson and Matthew Brown, Associated Press
Lawsuit Pits Young Climate Change Activists Against a Fossil Fuel-Friendly State at Trial
Olivia Vesovich, 19, a plaintiff in the first U.S. trial over a state government's obligation to protect its citizens from climate change, is seen outside the Lewis and Clark County courthouse, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Indpendent Record via AP)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Young people challenging Montana officials over inaction on climate change are expected back in state court on Tuesday in a first-of-a kind trial of a lawsuit that environmentalists hope will spur changes in the fossil fuel-friendly state.

State officials have sought to downplay Montana’s contributions to global warming as the trial that opened Monday is being closely watched for possible legal precedents even though the scope of the lawsuit has been narrowed in earlier rulings.

The trial is scheduled to last two weeks with 16 young plaintiffs and their attorneys seeking to persuade District Judge Kathy Seeley that the state’s allegiance to fossil fuels endangers their health and livelihoods and threatens future generations.

Grace Gibson-Snyder, 19, of Missoula, Montana — one of the plaintiffs — told the court that smoke from wildfires has gotten worse with climate change and become a “defining experience” of playing soccer in high school. The smoke regularly shrouded her hometown in unhealthy air, forced practice cancellations and kept teammates with asthma from taking the field.

“It’s not pleasant,” Gibson-Snyder said. “It’s so uncomfortable as you’re breathing deeper and deeper.”

After Monday’s opening court session, Gibson-Snyder said she felt empowered “to know we’re being heard. We are telling our stories and I am looking forward to a shift toward a better policy and healthier future for all of us.”

The case is the first of dozens of similar lawsuits to reach trial. Experts say it could set legal precedent but isn’t likely to spur immediate policy changes in Montana. Its state agencies have never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project and the state’s Legislature recently passed new laws favoring oil, gas and coal over renewable energy.

The lawsuit centers on Montana’s constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment,” and whether that means the state should act to protect residents against worsening climate change. By enlisting plaintiffs ranging in age from 5 to 22, the environmental firm bringing the lawsuit is trying to highlight how young people are harmed by climate change now and in the future.

A lawyer for the state said sparsely populated Montana produces “minuscule” emissions. Montana Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell also said the harms alleged by Gibson-Snyder and the other plaintiffs can’t be traced to specific actions by state officials.

“Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator,” he said.

In the three years since the lawsuit was filed, the scope of the case has been narrowed to whether Montana’s Environmental Policy Act — which requires state agencies to balance the health of the environment against resource development — is unconstitutional because it does not require officials to consider greenhouse gas emissions or their climate impacts.

Judge Seeley has said she could rule that the state’s climate change exception in its environmental law is at odds with its constitution, but she can’t tell the legislature what to do to remedy the violation.

Environmentalists have called the bench trial a turning point because similar suits in nearly every state have already been dismissed. A favorable decision could add to a handful of rulings globally that have declared that governments have a duty to protect citizens from climate change.

Climate researcher Steve Running, who with other scientists was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the issue, testified there was “no doubt” climate change was causing disruptions globally. Montana, he added, is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures due to its reliance on adequate winter snow to keep rivers flowing year round.

Running described an increasingly dire situation of wildfires becoming more severe and more frequent in western North America — causing health impacts across the nation — as heavy fossil fuel use continues to churn out emissions at levels problematic for the atmosphere.

“Climate change is real and the earth is warming up,” Running said. “There’s no alternative explanation.”

Experts for the state are expected to counter that climate extremes have existed for centuries.

Carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burned, traps heat in the atmosphere and is largely responsible for the warming of the the climate. Carbon dioxide levels in the air this spring reached the highest levels they’ve been in over 4 million years, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said earlier this month. Greenhouse gas emissions also reached a record last year, according to the International Energy Agency.

___

Brown reported from Billings, Montana.

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