The Climate Crisis Goes to Court; Youth Prevails

On Monday, August 14, from a Helena, Montana courthouse, Judge Kathy Seeley delivered her much anticipated decision on the Held v. Montana case. Judge Seeley ruled for the sixteen plaintiffs, ages five to twenty-two, who had sued the state regarding a law that prohibited state officials from considering the effects of climate change in their environmental reviews of Montana’s energy policies.

Judge Seeley, of the Montana First Judicial District Court, ruled in favor of the young plaintiffs. The plaintiffs had proved their case with the scientific evidence that climate change had adversely impacted their rights to a healthy environment by allowing the expansive use of fossil fuels without regard to the well-being of Montana’s citizens.

Judge Seeley ruled on the scientific evidence presented during the trial. “There is overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth is warming as a direct result of human GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels,” Judge Seeley wrote in her decision. “So long as greenhouse gas emissions stay at high levels, the Earth will keep getting warmer and the climate impacts we are already seeing – wildfires, drought, sea-level rise, extreme heat – will keep getting worse.”

In her ruling, Judge Seeley emphasized that the young people will disproportionately carry the weight of the climate crisis. “Children born in 2020 will experience a two to sevenfold increase in extreme events, particularly heatwaves, compared with people born in 1960,” wrote the judge.

Eleven of the sixteen plaintiffs testified about the evaporating glaciers, the wildfire smoke that had decimated Montana’s environment and the physical and psychological harm these blowback effects of fossil fuels had cost them. Montana pediatrician Lori Byron testified on the effects of climate change on children’s bodies: since children’s bodies are in the developmental stage, they are more vulnerable than adults to the polluted air and elevated temperatures. Children are prone to breathe faster than adults – taking in more air and more pollutants. Children have more difficult cooling down during extreme heat and have more porous skin to draw in toxic chemicals.

Dr. Byron entered into evidence the scientific conclusion that climate is regarded as “an adverse childhood experience;” a traumatic experience that they will carry into their adult lives. Definitive proof was presented that the more trauma a child experiences, the greater the likelihood that these children will become adults with chronic and debilitating health conditions i.e. heart disease, diabetes.

For the plaintiffs, their case was made irrefutable with the science. The state of Montana did not present any witnesses, ending the case of Held v. Montana a week early. The state was considering having their mental health expert Debra Shepard, to testify, but wisely changed their minds since the Montana neuropsychologist confessed to not having any expertise in the matter of children’s angst regarding climate change.

Montana’s lack of a credible defense did not deter the spokesperson for  Montana’s Attorney General, Emily Flowers, from sharing her vitriolic perspective on the case. Reflective of the climate denialism in pursuit of profit, the ultra Republican mindset that currently controls Montana’s legislature, Flowers exploded with the conclusion that the ruling was “absurd,” criticized Judge Seeley for even hearing the case that was a “taxpayer-funded publicity stunt,” and declared that “Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate…[the plaintiffs] found an ideological judge who bent over backwards to allow the case to move forward and earns herself a spot in their next documentary.”

Climate denialism among the right-wing Republican sect needs to believe that the astonishing profits made by the “big five” oil producing conglomerates, Exxon, Chevron, Shell, British Petroleum and Total Energies, are not a factor when deciding on the rampant expansion of fossil fuels. Climate denialism needs to believe that these corporate conglomerates are a reflection of their interests, big oil brings what the public wants.

 These “big five” entities of complained of a sluggish 2021 profit margin. 2022 more than made up for the previous year: $400 billion in profit was accumulated last year by the “big five.” Exxon, the Texas-based oil giant, topped the list of the oil producers with a record $55.7 billion in annual profit, which translates to a $6.3 million profit gained every hour. California-based Chevron made a record $36.5 billion profit; Shell profited by $39.9 billion;  the London-based British Petroleum raked in $27.7 in oil profits; and the French company, Total Energies, took $36.2 billion in oil profits.

Is it any wonder that the world’s children are experiencing climate angst as they grow into young adults and realize their health, their environment was sacrificed for the profits of oil companies?

While most of the world’s populace experienced severe climate-based disasters, big oil executives from the “big five” used their monster profits to reinvest $1 trillion in global fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction. Investing in sustainable and alternative energy sources is not an option; instead corporate spokespeople have no problem stating that the transition to other sustainable and cleaner energy sources are not in the immediate future. The “big five” claim to be reflective of what the country wants and needs.

An obvious warning needs to be made: the Republican party, looking to win the 2024 presidential election, has already set in motion their climate plan: more of the same “big five” profits. The Republican party is intent on dismantling any efforts to slow global warming.  The Heritage Foundation has a battle plan they have called Project 2025.

 Project 2025 shreds all regulations to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from cars, oil wells and power plants and will dismantle every clean energy program put forth by the federal government.  Project 2025 will encourage the immediate expansion of fossil fuels. Project 2025 may consider if climate change does really exist and what can be done.

Project 2025 would be laughable – if the consequences of a planet on fire were not so undeniably real and preventable.

Our Children’s Trust, the environmental non-profit designed to take climate litigation to the courts on behalf of children, called the verdict “an historic first.” The young plaintiffs did not seek any monetary compensation. Instead, the young plaintiffs were successful in declaring unconstitutional the Montana law that allowed the effects of greenhouse gases to go unchecked by the state. Montana’s state and legislative branches are now required to conform their practices regarding fossil fuels around Judge Seeley’s decision, which includes the judge’s admonition that every additional ton of greenhouse gas emissions “exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries.”

Montana has sixty days to decide on whether to appeal Judge Seeley’s decision. However, the Montana State Supreme Court is the final word on Held v. Montana: the United States Supreme Court does not hear cases based only on state law.

In the Montana state constitution, a green amendment was added in 1972 that guaranteed that all “Montanans have certain inalienable rights,” including “the right to a clean and healthful environment,” and that “the state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

Judge Seeley’s decision was the obvious one: the environmental lawyers for Our Children’s Trust built their case on irrefutable science. The state of Montana did not refute the evidence.

In the United States and around the world, climate change litigation has grown exponentially. Each case building on the victory of previous climate change victories. Held v. Montana is a victory other climate change litigation can build upon.

Nancy Snyder is the Recording Secretary Emeritus of SEIU Local 1021. She has a long history of writing about labor issues and labor history and also writes about political literature.