Montana Youth Win Overdue “Clean and Healthful Environment” Victory

Photo by Tony Reid

It’s been more than 50 years since Montanans voted to ratify the 1972 Constitution which has drawn worldwide praise for its clarity and protections for a broad spectrum of citizens’ rights — including our “Inalienable right to a clean and healthful environment.” Yet only now, half a century later, has that right finally been fully recognized in an order issued in Helena by the Honorable Kathy Seeley’s district court.

All Montanans owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the 16 young people who had the courage to bring the Held v. State lawsuit and prove that Gov. Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, and the Republican legislative super-majority went too far in their foolish climate-change denial by making it illegal for state agencies to consider climate change pollutants in the state’s permitting processes.

Thanks to a tremendous job by the phalanx of highly skilled attorneys representing the “next generation,” the reality of Montana’s significant contributions to global climate change was simply undeniable. When all the carbon output from Montana’s mining, transporting, and burning fossil fuels was added up, it surpassed the total carbon footprint of entire nations, including Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

Presenting 168 exhibits and an array of expert witnesses for the plaintiffs laid the rock-solid basis for the court victory. By comparison, the state’s attorneys submitted only four exhibits, and provided exactly zero compelling state interest that would override the damage being done to the climate, the state itself, and particularly to young people and children, who are far more susceptible to pollution.

When you consider Montana’s fossil fuel emissions were conservatively estimated at 166 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, it seems unbelievable that the governor, attorney general, or Legislature could even begin to insist Montana had no impact on global climate.

Of course those of us who live here know our climate is changing because the evidence is all around us. Disappearing glaciers; longer, hotter summers with more temperature extremes; and shorter, warmer winters with less snowpack resulting in less runoff. Every major river in the state was shown to be impacted, with the blatant evidence of distressed, diseased, and dying cold-water trout for which Montana is world famous. And due to ever warmer inflows, surface water temperatures in Flathead Lake are now too warm to sustain its native cutthroat or bull trout.

Despite the baloney peddled by the Forest Service and timber industry that our forests are burning because they are “overgrown,” the reality is they are drying earlier from less snow, earlier runoff, and summer temperatures so high, live trees have less moisture than completely cured lumber.

The fact is, our forests are burning because climate change causes disproportionately higher temperatures in northern climes. Given that wildfire smoke injures children most of all, it’s no wonder these brave young people stood up to challenge the state’s fossil fuel policies in court — and won a victory that’s reverberating around the globe!

The court’s ruling makes it embarrassingly apparent that although Gov. Gianforte, Attorney General Austin Knudsen, and the Republican legislators swore an oath to uphold Montana’s Constitution, they appear to have never read it. You really can’t misinterpret: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

For 50 long years through both Democrat and Republican administrations, however, that mandate has been ignored. “Maintain and improve” does not mean degrade and destroy. But thanks to courageous young Montanans, their outstanding legal counsel, and an incredible 103-page order from Judge Seeley, Montana’s Constitutional mandates must finally be honored.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.