“We Hope to Make a Spark Here”
A landmark climate change trial has just wrapped up in Montana. What happens next?
This article was originally published by the Flathead Beacon.
On the final day of a groundbreaking constitutional climate trial that activists hope will establish solid legal precedent and incite systemic change to Montana’s standard of approving fossil fuel projects, an 18-year-old plaintiff from Kalispell characterized the end of the lengthy legal proceedings as “just the beginning.”
“We’re hopefully starting a trickle down of other litigation and activism nationally,” Lander Busse, who was raised in Kalispell along with his brother, a co-plaintiff in the case, said at a press conference following Tuesday’s closing statements in Helena. “We hope we made a spark here.”
Attorneys representing the 16 young plaintiffs in Held v. Montana, as well as counsel for the state, delivered their brief closing remarks before Lewis and Clark District Court Judge Kathy Seeley on the seventh and final day of a non-jury bench trial. The trial wrapped up early after the state called on fewer expert witnesses than its legal team anticipated, instead laying out the entirety of its defense in less than a day, despite having mounted an aggressive defense in pre-trial proceedings that spanned three years.
Counsel for both sides now must prepare and submit their written findings of fact and conclusions of law, which are required in non-jury legal actions of this kind. According to the estimation of one plaintiffs’ attorney, it could be more than three weeks before those filings are complete, after which Seeley will respond with her final order.
Regardless of who prevails, the ruling is expected to be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court as the until-now untested legal strategy became the first constitutional climate case litigated before a judge. The case marks just the second time a court has heard arguments about state actions on climate change; as such, its reach will be determined in the appeals process.
Since it opened on June 12, much of the landmark environmental trial has centered on the connection between Montana’s warming climate and the harm alleged by the plaintiffs, who say their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” has been violated by the state’s practice of promoting and permitting the fossil fuel industry, contributing to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.
The state, meanwhile, disputed the evidence that burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change in a meaningful way, and denied that Montana’s increasingly severe wildland fire seasons and drought are linked to its legacy of supporting fossil-fuel-burning projects reliant on coal, oil, and gas.
During the trial’s first week, attorneys for the young plaintiffs presented testimony from expert witnesses, including leading climate scientists, glaciologists, policy experts, and mental health professionals, to describe the alleged harms the plaintiffs have suffered because of Montana’s promotion and permitting of the fossil fuel industry. Ten of the youths, ranging from ages 14 to 22, also took the stand to describe how their quality of life has been compromised by both the real-time effects of climate change as well as its haunting specter.
Nate Bellinger, an attorney with Our Children’s Trust representing the plaintiffs, summarized the expert testimony and science presented to the court as a solution-oriented narrative that provides a clear road map for the state to redress the youths’ complaints.
“Solutions to the climate crisis are available now. And the only thing standing in the way are government laws that perpetuate Montana’s fossil fuel-based energy system,” Bellinger said. “These 16 young people shouldered the responsibilities to come here and share their intimate stories of harm … they ask that the state alleviate the harms of its own conduct.”
After the state succeeded in narrowing the scope of the lawsuit during pre-trial motions, the case centered on a single provision in the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), a piece of legislation that directs state regulatory agencies to conduct an environmental review of major state actions, such as permitting fossil fuel projects. A 2011 version of the law barred agencies from considering any impacts that are “regional, national, or global” in scale, while a 2023 revision directly prohibits any evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions or climate change impacts within or outside the state.
On Monday, the state called two employees of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to testify that MEPA is merely a procedural playbook and doesn’t offer state agencies authority to regulate actions based on potential emissions or climate impacts. Referencing those remarks, Bellinger said if the state’s own regulatory agencies lack the discretion to deny or condition a permit even after an environmental review reveals harms that “arise to the level of constitutional violations,” the underlying permitting statutes themselves are unconstitutional.
In closing, Bellinger said the right to a clean and healthful environment is the latest in a long line of basic human rights—including women’s rights, segregation, public schooling, marriage—that required judicial intervention.
“Time and again the political will of powerful majorities was struck down by the courts based on compelling evidence, courageously correcting the injustices thrust on people,” he said. “Plaintiffs are asking this court to declare that a stable climate system is fundamental to the protection of their rights to a clean and healthful environment.”
For the state, Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell offered the trial’s final remarks, homing in on what should be a narrow interpretation of a single law passed by the legislature.
“The people of Montana are most represented by their elected representatives … here the people of Montana, through the legislature, enacted the MEPA and its operations, including the provision at issue in this case,” he said. “State agencies can’t implement laws that haven’t been enacted by the legislature,” including considering climate change during the permitting and review processes.
The entirety of the state’s defense spanned less than one full day of trial, compared to the five days during which plaintiffs’ attorneys called on witnesses. The defense called just one expert witness, an economist, whose testimony Seeley said “raised some questions” about its validity.
But Russell kept his focus trained exclusively on the legal boundaries of the case, adding that any lawsuit alleging harm must prove the harm was caused by the defendant.
“That’s true whether the case is a car wreck, a crime, or the constitution of Montana,” he said. The expert witnesses and scientists “did their best to avoid talking about the causal link between the legislature’s directive under MEPA to the measurable impacts on the ground.”
The court system is not the place to air grievances over the environment, he added, and encouraged the plaintiffs to seek a different avenue for their legal remedy, such as ballot initiatives, lobbying their legislators, or continuing to advocate in the public sphere.
“Democracy is the appropriate process for change,” Russell said.
“This case has received national attention in part because it’s been billed as a referendum on climate change generally,” he continued. “This is not supposed to be a town hall meeting or popularity contest.”