Gen Z activists just won a first-of-its-kind trial against the state of Montana for violating their right to a clean environment

September 13, 2023

Matthew Brown, Amy Beth Hanson, and the Associated Press,, August 15 2023

Young environmental activists scored what experts described as a ground-breaking legal victory Monday when a Montana judge said state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by allowing fossil fuel development.

The ruling in this first-of-its- kind trial in the U.S. adds to a small number of legal decisions around the world that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change.

If it stands, the ruling could set an important legal precedent, though experts said the immediate impacts are limited and state officials pledged to seek to overturn the decision on appeal.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found the policy the state uses in evaluating requests for fossil fuel permits — which does not allow agencies to look at greenhouse gas emissions — is unconstitutional.

It marks the first time a U.S. court has ruled against a government for violating a constitutional right based on climate change, said Harvard Law School Professor Richard Lazarus.

“To be sure, it is a state court not a federal court and the ruling is based on a state constitution and not the U.S. Constitution, but it is still clearly a major, pathbreaking win for climate plaintiffs,” Lazarus wrote in an email.

The judge rejected the state’s argument that Montana’s emissions are insignificant, saying they were “a substantial factor” in climate change. Montana is a major producer of coal burned for electricity and has large oil and gas reserves.

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