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Landmark Montana case decides energy development without considering climate violates youth rights

  • A judge in Montana handed a huge win to local residents concerned about climate change with a ruling that young people in the state have "a right to a healthful environment"

  • The ruling means that regulators and legislators can no longer ignore climate change when assessing the development of energy projects

  • Montana is a huge supplier of coal and methane gas -- both fossil fuels that contribute to global climate change

  • Lawyers for the advocacy group Our Children's Trust, which brought the case, said the ruling could set precedent for other cases around the country

In a landmark case that could have nationwide implications, a judge in Montana ruled that young people in the state have a constitutional right to a healthful environment and that the state's failure to consider climate change when evaluating fossil fuel development was causing harm.

The ruling, as reported by The Washington Post and The New York Times, ends a lawsuit brought by a group of young Montanans from 5-to-22 years old.

It's the first ruling of its kind in the country, but could be a taste of things to come as citizens and cities increasingly turn to courts to pressure companies and state legislatures to do more to address the climate crisis.

While the state argued that Montana's emissions are a tiny fraction of the nation's -- and the world's -- carbon footprint, district court judge Kathy Seeley found that the state's development of oil, gas, and coal projects have had a substantial impact on climate.

Many state legislatures in the U.S. have passed laws limiting the ability of

regulators to take climate change into account when assessing environmental projects and the Montana case strikes those rules down.

“This is a huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy and for our climate,” Julia Olson, the executive director of Our Children’s Trust, which brought the case, told The New York Times.

The June trial saw several climate scientists and the young plaintiffs testify about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on human and planetary health.

The Washington Post reported that a 15-year-old with asthma described himself as “a prisoner in my own home” when isolating with covid during a period of intense wildfire smoke. And Rikki Held, the 22-year-old plaintiff named in the lawsuit, talked about how climate change had impacted her family's ranching business.

Montana is in many ways ground zero of the climate debate. The state has massive coal reserves and is also part of the Bakken Shale formation which was ground zero for the U.S. methane gas boom a decade ago.

Despite the state's importance to the fossil fuel industry, there's also a tradition of conservative environmentalism that runs deep in the region.

Back in 1972 residents passed an amendment to the state's Constitution that required future generations to "maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations."

That amendment was at the heart of the case brought by the young Montana activists -- and will likely set the stage for legal action in other states that have similar rights.

“There are political decisions being made without regard to the best scientific evidence and the effects they will have on our youngest generations,” Phil Gregory, an attorney for the climate advocates told The Washington Post. “This is a monumental decision.”

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