In Held and Others, sixteen young plaintiffs aged between two and eighteen brought a case against the U.S. state of Montana alleging violations of the state constitution due to climate change. The youth plaintiffs in this case, which is to some extent comparable to the Juliana litigation, alleged that they are already experiencing ‘a host of adverse consequences’ from anthropogenic climate change in Montana, including increased temperatures, changing weather patterns, more acute droughts and extreme weather events, increasing wildfires and glacial melt. Fossil fuels extracted in Montana cause emissions higher than those of many countries, including Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Spain, or the United Kingdom. The plaintiffs argued that this was causing health risks, especially for children, and that the defendants, among them the state of Montana, its Governor, and various state agencies, had “act[ed] affirmatively to exacerbate the climate crisis” despite their awareness of the risks to the applicants. On 14 August 2023, Judge Kathy Seeley ruled wholly in favor of the youth plaintiffs, declaring that Montana had violated their constitutional rights and invalidating the statutory rule forbidding state authorities from considering the impacts of GHG emissions or climate change in decision-making related to fossil fuel extraction.
The plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of fossil fuel-based provisions of Montana’s State Energy Policy Act along with a provision of the Montana Environmental Policy Act which forbids state authorities from considering the impacts of GHG emissions or climate change in their environmental reviews (the “MEPA Limitation”). They also challenged the aggregate acts that the state has taken to implement and perpetuate a fossil fuel-based energy system under these statutes.
The plaintiffs sought a declaration that their right to a clean and healthy environment includes a right a stable climate, and that existing approaches to greenhouse gas emissions in Montana violate constitutional provisions, including the right to a clean and healthy environment; the right to seek safety, health, and happiness; and the right to individual dignity and to equal protection. They also sought injunctive relief, namely an order to account for Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions and to develop and implement an emissions reductions plan.
Decision on the admissibility:
On 4 August 2021, a the Montana First Judicial District Court for Lewis and Clark County declared the case admissible in part. The prayer for injunctive relief in terms of emissions accounting, a remedial plan or policy, the appointment of expert to assist the court, and retain jurisdiction until such orders are complied with were rejected. However, the court declared the constitutional rights claims admissible, including the claim about the plaintiffs’ ‘fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment’, which — as the plaintiffs submitted — ‘includes a stable climate system that sustains human lives and liberties’.
Judge Seeley’s Ruling of 14 August 2023:
After a trial held from 12-23 June 2023, Judge Kathy Seeley of the First Judicial District Court of Montana issued a ruling in this case on 14 August 2023. Noting that “[t]he science is clear that there are catastrophic harms to the natural environment of Montana and Plaintiffs and future generations of the State due to anthropogenic climate change”, she ruled wholly in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that the state of Montana had violated their constitutional rights to equal protection, dignity, liberty, health and safety, and public trust, all of which are predicated on their right to a clean and healthful environment (p. 92-93).
In doing so, Judge Seeley ruled that the youth plaintiffs had standing to bring the case because they had proven that they had experienced significant injuries. The court set out the different impacts on the plaintiffs at length (p. 46-64). It ultimately found that the plaintiffs “have experienced past and ongoing injuries resulting from the State’s failure to consider GHGs and climate change, including injuries to their physical and mental health, homes and property, recreational, spiritual, and aesthetic interests, tribal and cultural traditions, economic security, and happiness” (p. 86 of the ruling). The judge also ruled that while mental health injuries based on state inaction on climate change do not on their own constitute a cognizable injury, “mental health injuries stemming from the effects of climate change on Montana’s environment, feelings like loss, despair, and anxiety, are cognizable injuries” (p. 86-87). The ruling recognizes that “[e]very additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries”, and that these injuries “will grow increasingly severe and irreversible without science-based actions to address climate change” (p. 87). As children and youth, the plaintiffs are disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts, and their injuries are “concrete, particularized, and distinguishable from the public generally” (p. 87).
On causation, and having heard and evaluated testimony from several expert witnesses, the Court extensively reviewed the scientific evidence concerning the causation and progression of anthropogenic climate change and identified the Earth’s energy imbalance as the critical metric for determining levels of global warming (p. 22). Having established that “Montana is a major emitter of GHG emissions in the world in absolute terms, in per person terms, and historically”, and noting the state government’s continuing approval of fossil fuel projects despite its already extensive production of oil, gas and coal, the Court found that there was a “fairly traceable connection” between Montana’s statutes, its GHG emissions, climate change, and the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs (p. 87). Noting that the state government had the authority to limit fossil fuel-related activities, and having regard to the fact that the MEPA Limitation causes the state to ignore climate impacts and renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels, as well as noting the economic and environmental advantages of a green energy transition for Montana, the Court noted that “current barriers to implementing renewable energy systems are not technical or economic, but social and political” (p. 83). The state of Montana, it held, “authorizes fossil fuel activities without analyzing GHGs or climate impacts, which result in GHG emissions in Montana and abroad that have caused and continue to exacerbate anthropogenic climate change” (p. 88). It noted also that these emissions were “nationally and globally significant”, and could accordingly not be considered de minimis; they “can be measured incrementally and cumulatively both in terms of immediate local effects and by mixing in the atmosphere and contributing to global climate change and an already destabilized climate system” (p. 88).
On the redressability of these impacts, the Court noted that the psychological satisfaction of the ruling itself did not constitute sufficient redress, and that declaring the relevant state statutory rules unconstitutional would provide partial redress because ongoing emissions will continue to cause harms to the plaintiffs. Noting that “[i]t is possible to affect future degradation to Montana’s environment and natural resources and injuries to these Plaintiffs”, and applying strict structiny to the state’s statutes, the Court found that the MEPA Limitation violates the right to a clean and healthful environment under the Montana Constitution, which protects children and future generations (among others) and includes the protection of the climate system. As a result, the Court tested whether the MEPA Limitation was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, finding that neither had the state authorities shown that it served a compelling governmental interest, nor was it narrowly tailored to serve any interest.
As a result, the judge invalidated the Montana legislation that promoted fossil fuels and prohibited analysis of GHG emissions and corresponding climate impacts.
13 March 2020
Date of admissibility decision:
4 August 2021
Date of Ruling:
14 August 2023
The original complaint is available from the Western Environmental Law Center.
The admissibility decision is available on climatecasechart.com.
Judge Seeley’s findings of fact, conclusions of law and order of 14 August 2023 are available below.
Montana First District Court for Lewis and Clark county, Held and others v. State of Montana and others, Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order, 14 August 2023, Cause no. CDV-2020-307.