Younger people are often dismissed by preceding generations, particularly when it comes to important issues that can affect the entire world. Older people claim that their passionate pursuits are nothing but folly.
One such issue was surfaced by youths in Montana, who sued the state of Montana alleging that the state government had failed to live up to its constitutional mandate to “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”
Fighting for the future
The lawsuit was premised on specific language in the Montana Constitution. Codified in the Constitution is a reference to guaranteeing the state’s residents – current and future – “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”
Sixteen Montana residents from five to 22 years old filed a climate lawsuit that seemed at an initial glance to be a long shot. Montana state laws enacted in 2011 – and updated just this past year – stopped state agencies from considering climate impact when it came to projects surrounding coal and natural gas.
Nevertheless, the plaintiffs’ arguments took aim at state leaders and their persistent pursuit of fossil fuel development. The plaintiffs claimed that developmental plans did not take into account the future impact on the area, not to mention the world.
An historic ruling
After a lengthy trial, the judge’s ruling represented a potential shift in future climate litigation and provided practically an unprecedented victory.
The judge’s ruling gave younger people in Montana and potentially nationwide a “fundamental right to a climate system that is safe and stable for their lives,” according to Julia Olson, the group’s chief legal counsel from a non-profit law office.
First District Judge Kathy Seeley rejected the defendant’s claims that global warming consequences were overblown. Seeley saw prohibition as unconstitutional.
Will the Montana decision have a ripple effect or limited impact? Can its reasoning and rationale be applied to other states and jurisdictions, or will it be restricted to Montana?
A handful of other states do have similar constitutional language on which like-minded lawsuits could be based, including Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Hawaii. Although California does not currently have similar language in its constitution, other avenues may be available for California residents to assert an affirmative right to environmental protection.
Unsurprisingly, the defendants in the Montana case are appealing the ruling. And all of this is occurring at a time when climate-driven litigation has doubled over the past five years, leading many to claim a paradigm shift.
Time will tell.