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Speaking Truth to Power: Youth Climate Activists Take Montana to Court


Olivia Vesovich, center, and Rikki Held, center left, who are among a group of young people suing the state government, walk towards a courthouse in Helena, Montana. Credit: Janie Osborne, The Spokesman Review.

On Tuesday, June 20th, after seven days of litigation in Held v. Montana, the landmark climate trial came to a close. The trial was brought forward by sixteen Montana youths ranging from ages two to twenty-two and a non-profit organization, Our Children’s Trust. They filed their suit under the claim that recent provisions created in the new Montana Environmental Policy Act are unconstitutional under the Montana State Constitution.


Montana’s constitution was amended in 1972 to include literature that outlined the protection of the state's environment. It declares that “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” This is directly conflicted by a recent provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act which states that greenhouse gas emissions cannot be considered when evaluating environmental impacts.


On Monday, June 12th litigation in the case began, the trial featured testimony from both a framer of the constitution of Montana, Mae Nan Ellingson, as well Rikki Held, the 22-year-old whose name the case is filed under. The trial featured extensive background on the negative effects of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as well as testimony from climate experts on the effects of excess carbon in the atmosphere. The trial also featured testimony from teens, children, and young adults on how climate change has affected them and their families' livelihoods.


Recently, Montana experienced flooding, extended fire seasons, and severe droughts, highlighting its vulnerability to the climate crisis. Montana is currently the nation's fifth-largest coal-producing state and the 12th-largest oil-producing state, a contrast to the pristine image associated with the national parks contained within its borders. Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park are both in Montana and have both faced significant environmental challenges over the past decade.


Advocates in the trial hope that the court will declare a stable climate system is fundamental to the protection of their rights to a clean and healthy environment. This trial is a tipping point in environmental case law in Montana as well as throughout the U.S. While a decision in the lawsuit has not yet been made, Held vs Montana is a prime example of the immense power that youth advocates hold in shaping their futures and that of the planet.


Sources:

Baker, Mike. “A Landmark Youth Climate Trial Begins in Montana.” The New York Times, 12 June 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/12/us/montana-youth-climate-trial.html.


Carnell, Henry. “What to Know about the Groundbreaking Climate Change Lawsuit in Montana.” Mother Jones, https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2023/06/held-montana-climate-change-lawsuit-constitution/. Accessed 30 June 2023.


Noor, Dharna. “Groundbreaking Youth-Led Climate Trial Comes to an End in Montana.” The Guardian, 20 June 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/jun/20/held-v-montana-climate-trial-youth-end.

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