A group of young people has won a major court case in the U.S. state of Montana by arguing climate inaction violates their legal rights.
The judge in the case issued an order to strike down Montana’s pro-fossil fuel laws, declaring they violate the right of young people to a healthy environment.
The case was brought by 16 young people who argued the laws were causing them harm.
The government of Montana called the result “absurd” and flagged an appeal.
The climate court case
The Montana case is part of a nationally coordinated movement of young people, led by not-for-profit legal firm, Our Children’s Trust.
The organisation has tried to sue the Federal government and every U.S. state with an aim to strike down pro-fossil fuel laws. In each case, the group is seeking to prove that governments have a legal obligation to consider the harms of climate change for young people.
The case in Montana was the first to make it to trial in the U.S.
The Montana case stood out for three reasons. First, Montana is a major coal exporter. Emissions from its six coal mines lead to more annual CO₂ emissions than the yearly total from countries including Brazil, Japan, and the UK.
Second, it has a law explicitly banning government agencies from considering the emissions impact of policies.
Third, its constitution gives citizens the right to “a clean and healthful environment”.
The court heard from expert witnesses that climate change caused harm to young people and that the state of Montana’s individual contribution was significant.
The judge ruled in their favour and Montana must now stop using its pro-fossil fuel laws. The judgment did not, however, uphold the young people’s request to direct the government to create new anti-fossil fuel laws.
Kian, one of the young people involved in the case, called the result “truly historic,” saying “We are heard! Frankly the elation and joy in my heart is overwhelming in the best way.”
However, the state government is likely to appeal the result. In a statement, the spokesperson for the state Attorney-General called the court proceeding a “weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial” and accused the judge of acting politically.
Australian court case
A similar case was brought in Australia in 2020 by eight teenagers, led by Anjali Sharma.
The group sued Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, arguing Ley had a ‘duty of care’ to consider climate impacts on children when she approved coal mines.
The group won an initial court case but lost on appeal. Earlier this year, Sharma worked with Independent Senator David Pocock to draft a bill which would put a duty of care into law.