Legal Terrain

Montana Court Upholds Constitutional Right to Safe Climate

August 24, 2023


Last week, in Held v. State of Montana, the First Judicial District Court of Lewis and Clark County issued a groundbreaking decision in favor of sixteen youth plaintiffs who challenged a Montana environmental review law that prohibited state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts during their review of major energy and infrastructure projects. After a trial in which the plaintiffs presented “credible” and “undisputed” evidence from client scientists, doctors, policy experts, and a delegate to the 1972 constitutional convention, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found that the law violated the Montana Constitution’s guarantee of the right to “a clean and healthful environment … for present and future generations.”

The issues in the case were fairly unique to Montana. The provision of the Montana Environmental Policy Act at issue was originally enacted in 2011 to limit the scope of environmental reviews by prohibiting state agencies from considering “actual or potential impacts beyond Montana’s borders … [or] actual or potential impacts that are regional, national, or global in nature.” In 2023, the Montana Legislature amended the provision to expressly prohibit state agencies from considering “an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state’s borders.”

If the original goal was not clear enough, the Legislature doubled down (in the middle of the lawsuit) to unambiguously declare its hostility to climate considerations. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.

The youth plaintiffs took advantage of several provisions of the Montana Constitution to secure the victory. The first was the “inalienable right” to “clean and healthful environment” set forth in Article II, Section 3. The second was the affirmative obligations of “[t]he state and each person … [to] maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations” and of “[t]he legislature … [to] provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources” set forth in Article IX, Section 1.

Citing precedent from the Montana Supreme Court, Judge Seeley found that these constitutional rights were forward-looking and preventative and “clearly indicate[d] that Montanans have a right not only to reactive measures after a constitutionally-proscribed environmental harm has occurred, but to be free of its occurrence in the first place.” Where the climate is part of the “clean and healthful environment” and the “environmental life support system” and where Montana’s climate was being degraded due to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and climate change, the youth plaintiffs were entitled to seek equitable relief for the state’s failure to meet its affirmative duty to protect the constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment—particularly where Montana’s fossil fuel emissions were found to be globally-significant. See Findings of Fact, at ¶ 219 (“Montana’s fossil fuel-based economy is equivalent to the emissions from Argentina …, the Netherlands …, or Pakistan.”) & ¶ 222 (“Montana is a major emitter of GHG emissions in the world in absolute terms, in per person terms, and historically.”). Judge Seeley, therefore, permanently enjoined the State of Montana from enforcing the prohibition on considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts in its environmental reviews.

Given the nuances of Montana’s constitutional and statutory law, this decision has little direct precedential value outside the state. Few states, if any, likely have a similar combination of a climate prohibition in their environmental review law and an affirmative environmental protection obligation in their state constitutions. Massachusetts, for example, is certainly not one of them. The Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act expressly requires that state agencies “consider reasonably foreseeable climate change impacts, including additional greenhouse gas emissions, and effects, such as predicted sea level rise.” G.L. c. 30, § 61. And although the Massachusetts Constitution declares that “[t]he people shall have the right to clean air and water … and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment; and [that] the protection of the people in their right to the conservation, development and utilization of the agricultural, mineral, forest, water, air and other natural resources is … a public purpose,” Mass. Const. art. 97, there is no express affirmative duty of the Commonwealth to provide remedies for protecting the environment.

The import of the decision should not be minimized, however. Remarkably, a court of law made express findings of fact, based on expert testimony, that dangerous climate impacts are occurring due to human activities, primarily from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Those climate impacts are causing real physical, emotional, cultural, and financial harm to young people, right now. The barriers to implementing renewable energy systems that reduce these climate impacts are not technical or economic but social and political. These findings will have precedential value in other climate change litigation as a roadmap for proving harm and damages caused by greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts and the available remedies necessary for transitioning from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.

Indeed, youth plaintiffs in similar climate litigation against the federal government—Juliana v. United States in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon—have cited the Held decision as legal authority supporting their case going to trial. In a brief filed a week after Held, the Juliana plaintiffs argued that Held confirmed that their injuries stemming from the federal government’s fossil fuel policies “are provable at a manageable trial and are redressable by courts” and that “judicial decisions in constitutional climate harm cases must be made based on cross-examined expert testimony and evidence presented at trial.”

receive news & alerts

Yes, I’d like to receive updates with firm news and insights that are relevant to me.