A district judge in the US state of Montana has ruled that the state government is violating the basic rights of young plaintiffs by supporting the extraction and use of fossil fuels and requiring environmental impact assessments to ignore the negative effects of greenhouse gases. This is the first time that a court in the United States has upheld such a lawsuit. Legal experts suspect that the decision will have far-reaching consequences for thousands of lawsuits in the United States alone.
Supported by the organization “Our Children’s Trust”, 16 young people between the ages of 5 and 22 filed the lawsuit in June 2020. She targeted a special clause in Montana’s environmental law that prohibited agencies from considering the effects of greenhouse gases and global warming when assessing the environmental impact of large-scale energy projects.
Six major coal deposits are mined in Montana. The state has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the United States. It is also a major producer of oil and gas with 4000 oil and 5000 gas wells. The Montana Constitution guarantees its citizens “a clean and healthy environment in Montana for present and future generations.” According to the verdict, the requirement to ignore climate impacts in environmental impact assessments violates the fundamental rights of the plaintiffs.
2,180 climate lawsuits, most in the US
The consequences of the judgment are unclear. In the future, climate impacts can no longer be ignored when approving and re-approving energy projects in the state, provided that the decision stands. However, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is considering whether to file an appeal. The public prosecutor responsible is determined to do so: he had his spokeswoman say that the verdict was absurd and that the court proceedings were an expensive joke for taxpayers. “Montana is not responsible for climate change,” prosecutors said.
Nevertheless, the decision is likely to have repercussions: Several states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, have constitutional guarantees comparable to those of Montana. Our Childen’s Trust represents youth plaintiffs in climate lawsuits against the governments of Utah, Virginia and Hawaii. In addition, there is a lawsuit in federal court, which is considered to be of crucial importance.
New York’s Columbia University registers 2,180 climate lawsuits worldwide, most of them in the United States. Not only authorities or governments are affected, but also energy companies such as Exxon. Julia Olson, founder of the legal aid organization Our Childen’s Trust, praised the verdict. She is quoted in a press release as saying, “This is a great victory for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate.”
More than England or Brazil
In the 103-page reasoning, the judge writes that man-made climate change is leaching and degrading Montana’s environment and natural resources: rising temperatures, changes in rainfall, increasing droughts, more frequent extreme weather events, larger and more intense wildfires and the loss of glaciers.
According to the verdict, 25 of the 146 large glaciers that were registered in the well-known Glacier National Park in 1850 are still active today. The wildfire season is now two months longer than it was in 1980. Lower summer rainfall, earlier snowmelt, less mountain snow cover and warmer summer temperatures are contributing factors.
Christian Schwägerl Published/Updated: , Recommendations: 19 Published/Updated: Recommendations: 8 Katja Gelinsky Published/Updated: , Recommendations: 10
The judge considers it proven that Montana makes a significant contribution to global warming. Fuels mined in the state in 2019 produced 70 million tons of CO2 emissions through combustion. Montana thus exceeds the emissions of large countries such as England, Brazil, Japan, Mexico and Spain.
“Montana is a significant emitter of greenhouse gases in the world in absolute, per capita and historical terms,” the ruling said. Every economic sector is affected by climate change. Agriculture and tourism, two important industries for Montana, are cited as examples.
The court also considers it proven that young people are particularly affected by the state’s energy policy. The young plaintiffs testified how forest fires affected their lives and health. Droughts would have deprived their families living from agriculture of the economic basis. Due to low water levels, traditional fishing is no longer possible in many streams.
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