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Young activists are suing Montana over climate impacts

In the USA, children and young people are suing the state of Montana for climate damage. The state violated their right to a “clean and healthy environment”. It is the first trial of this kind – more could follow.

The youngest plaintiff is just five years old: A historic lawsuit has begun in the United States in which children and young adults are suing the state of Montana for violating their right to a “clean and healthy environment”.

The 16 plaintiffs, aged between five and 22, accuse the state of having been harmed by the “dangerous effects of fossil fuels and the climate crisis”. Children are particularly vulnerable to the worsening effects of climate change. The plaintiffs want to use legal means to force those responsible in their home country to do something about climate change.

“Hero vs. Montana” – a historical trial

It is the first lawsuit after dozens of similar lawsuits over the past ten years in the United States that has now resulted in a lawsuit. Earlier lawsuits had been dismissed before the hearing. This is another reason why the “Hero vs. Montana” case is being closely followed nationwide – because it could lead to similar negotiations.

The lead plaintiff is 22-year-old Rikki Held, whose family runs a ranch in southeast Montana, near some of the richest coal deposits on the planet. She decided to join the lawsuit against the state after watching wildfires darken the skies over the ranch, drought ravaging livestock and flooding washing out a nearby riverbed, she said.

The livelihood and well-being of her family are increasingly affected, she said in her testimony. Forest fires burned dozens of kilometers of power cables, “so we didn’t have electricity for a month.” Livestock died because ranchers couldn’t pump water and grass was scarce because of a drought, she said. In 2021, forest fires would have taken the air “all summer” to breathe, ash trickled from the sky. Because of the mass evacuations, her family’s motel business suffered, said the environmental sciences graduate.

Regulation in the environmental law in focus

More than two weeks are scheduled for the trial before a court in Helena, the capital of Montana. At the heart of the lawsuit is a clause in the state constitution that is pro-fossil fuel. Montana politicians are sticking with coal as an export commodity to both domestic and foreign markets.

The young activists want to convince District Judge Kathy Seeley that fossil fuel extraction is a threat to their health, their livelihoods and future generations. “The State and each individual should maintain and enhance a clean and healthy environment in Montana for present and future generations,” the plaintiffs said.

They are not concerned with financial compensation, but instead with a declaration that their rights have been violated. Most notably, they question the constitutionality of a provision in the state’s environmental law that prohibits government agencies from considering climate impacts when reviewing permit applications related to fossil fuels.

Lawyer: “vanishingly small” proportion of emissions

The Montana State Attorney tried to downplay the importance of the lawsuit. At the start of the trial, he argued that the sparsely populated Montana produces only a “vanishingly small” proportion of emissions on a global scale.

Climate activist Held did not accept that. “I know climate change is a global problem, but Montana needs to take responsibility for our part,” she testified. “You can’t just dismiss this and do nothing about it.”

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