A major climate change trial opened Monday in Montana, where a group of young people argues the state’s embrace of fossil fuels is destroying pristine ecosystems, upending cultural heritage and robbing young residents of a healthy future.
The case, more than a decade in the making, is the first Several cases are pending in the US.
Ricky Held, 22, one of the first witnesses to testify Monday, described how his family’s 3,000-acre farm in eastern Montana has been threatened by drought, wildfires and extreme weather, from heat waves to flooding. At times she was moved to tears about working in those conditions while trying to support her family’s livelihood.
“I know climate change is a global issue, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part in it,” Ms. Heldt said. “You can’t blow it up, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
The lawsuit revolves around the contention of 16 young residents, ages 5 to 22, that “state government has failed to live up to its constitutional mandate to maintain and improve a clean and healthy environment in Montana for present and future generations. .”
State leaders contested the charges, calling the proceedings a show trial and a “gross injustice”.
“Montana’s emissions are too low to make any difference,” Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell said during the state’s opening statement. “Climate change is a global issue that effectively reduces Montana’s role to that of a bystander.”
The two-week trial will determine whether a judge should declare state support for the fossil fuel industry unconstitutional. Such a finding would put legal pressure on government leaders to take action, and set a tone for other states watching how the proceedings unfold.
The effects of a warming climate are already spreading across Montana, including shrinking glaciers in Glacier National Park and a wildfire season that threatens the state’s treasured outdoor recreation. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say government inaction on climate change threatens their ability to access clean water, sustain family farms or continue hunting traditions.
“Montana’s warming climate will have environmental and economic impacts,” Roger Sullivan, an attorney for the young residents, said in opening statements.
Not only the smoke from the wildfires, but the young people have personally experienced the dangerous future signs of flooding in Yellowstone National Park.
Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Foundation, the environmental nonprofit that helped bring the Montana case, said the case has the potential to set a new course for a healthy and prosperous future for generations to come. Several of the young plaintiffs planned to testify.
Montana, whose unofficial nicknames include the “Treasure State,” has long had its fortunes tied to mining. Helena, the state capital where the climate lawsuit is taking place, was founded by gold prospectors in the 1860s. Montana is the nation’s fifth largest coal producing state and the 12th largest oil producing state.
Earlier this year, in a further demonstration of government support for fossil fuels, Republican lawmakers approved legislation that would prevent climate impacts from being considered when evaluating large projects such as new power plants or factories.
However, the state has long treasured its unspoiled landscapes and crystal-clear lakes, and has embraced the unofficial nickname “The Last Best Place.” In 1972, in response to a growing concern for protecting those assets, the state added language on the right to a clean and healthy environment to its constitution in 1972.
The first witness called by the plaintiffs was Mae Nan Ellingson, a junior delegate to the 1972 Constitutional Convention. He testified about how environmental protection was a key issue for many involved in the process.
“We want a clean and healthy environment, so it was a very long and contentious debate to include the words clean and healthy as descriptors of the environment,” he said.
State leaders have opposed the climate lawsuit, which has its roots in a failed 2011 effort to pressure the state Supreme Court to force the state to take action on climate change. As part of the lawsuit, state officials have denied the overwhelming scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is changing the global climate and denied that extreme weather events in the state are linked to rising air temperatures.
Our Children’s Foundation has taken legal action on the climate issue in every state, and the group has several lawsuits pending. On June 1, the group scored another early victory when a judge ruled that a youth lawsuit targeting the federal government could go to trial.