A groundbreaking legal outcome has just occurred in the U.S. State of Montana, one which may forever alter the course of global climate litigation.

Presiding over the nation’s first ever constitutional climate trial, a Montana judge has ruled in favour of a group of young people that said they were being harmed due to the state’s continued development of coal reserves and fossil fuel projects. The plaintiffs argued that this was in direct violation of Montana’s constitutional guarantee to a “clean and healthful environment” for its citizens.

Over a dozen young plaintiffs, aged five to 22, were led by fifth-generation Montana resident Rikki Held, who testified that the effects of climate change have been directly felt by her family for over a decade. Held’s testimony included examples of climate-amplified wildfires that damaged her family’s land, led to animal deaths on their property, caused nearby towns to evacuate and shutdown local highways. Others in the group added their own accounts of physical and mental harms experienced due to climate change, and this was backed up by a litany of scientific research and environmental experts providing statements of support.

Despite fossil fuel projects being a recognised contributor to negative climate outcomes, Montana’s Environmental Policy Act historically blocked government officials from that being a factor when greenlighting these developments. But thanks to the provisions laid out in the state’s constitution, the plaintiffs have been successful in forcing the government to no longer turn a blind eye to potential environmental harms when it comes to permitting decisions. What this ruling means in practice is that the State of Montana can no longer move forward with fossil fuel projects that are known to contribute to climate change through factors such as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Youth 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.

Excerpt of findings by District Court Judge Kathy Seeley

The case, which was first set in motion back in 2020, found success due in part to the fact that environmental protections are written directly into the constitution. Despite this being a rarity among state-bodies and districts in the U.S., it’s hoped that this positive outcome might pave the way for similar cases, both domestically and abroad.

However, the case will now likely be appealed and heard in the Montana Supreme Court – a challenge for the plaintiffs, but one that will draw even more attention to this pressing issue. It should also be noted the plaintiffs asked for no compensation, outside of their attorney’s fees and legal costs associated with the case. Seemingly, the health of the planet is the greatest compensation that could be asked for.

One only need look to the recent Canadian wildfires, devastation in Maui, record setting European droughts and global heatwaves to see that climate change is having an impact across the planet. If the catastrophic fallout of ongoing environmental emergencies felt around the world doesn’t compel global governments to reassess the status quo, perhaps this ruling might be the start of that long overdue shift in perspective.

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