This summer, a group of kids in Montana took the state to court over climate change—and won. On August 14, Judge Kathy Seeley issued her decision. She said the state’s support of fossil fuels violated the kids’ right to a clean environment.
Montana is a major producer of gas and coal. In her ruling, Seeley wrote that greenhouse-gas emissions “have been proven to be a substantial factor” in harming the environment. From now on, state officials will have to consider climate change when deciding whether to approve fossil-fuel projects.
The case, Held v. Montana, is the first in the United States to decide that governments have a duty to protect citizens from climate change. The 16 plaintiffs were all young people, ranging in age from 5 to 22.
Plaintiff Kian Tanner, 18, spent his childhood playing in Montana’s forests and streams. “Climate change is going to affect kids for generations to come,” he told TIME for Kids. “This case sets a precedent for the United States—and the world—for how to act on climate change now.”
Taking the Stand
Montana is a big producer of fossil fuels. But it has a history of environmentalism. The kids’ case was successful because of language in the state’s constitution. It guarantees Montanans “the right to a clean and healthful environment.” That makes the state responsible for protecting the environment “for present and future generations.”
But for years, Montana lawmakers ignored that language when creating energy policies. During the trial, lawyers for the state argued that its emissions were tiny compared with the rest of the planet’s. They say eliminating all of Montana’s emissions would make no difference.
Rikki Held, 22, was the lead plaintiff. “I know that climate change is a global issue,” she told the court. “But Montana needs to take responsibility for our part.”
Scientists took the stand too. They described the harmful effects of rising temperatures in the state and their impact on kids’ physical and mental health.
The state’s lawyers did not contest the evidence. “They were called to task and accepted that the science on climate change is very clear,” says Andrea Rodgers, a lawyer who represented the kids. She’s with the group Our Children’s Trust. “Truth matters.”
Montana’s government calls the judge’s ruling unfair, and says it will appeal. That would take the case to the state supreme court. “Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate,” a spokesperson says.
But Held v. Montana could influence how other cases are decided. Young people in Hawaii, Utah, and Virginia have filed similar suits. A case in Oregon brought against the U.S. government could go to trial next year.
For Tanner, the Montana case is proof of what young people can accomplish. “This wasn’t a fight I wanted to have,” he says. “But if the responsibility falls on my generation, we’ll take it. I don’t want other kids to have to deal with the pain and suffering that climate change causes.”
Around the world, young people are taking governments to court over climate change. This photo shows members of the youth-led group Aurora, which is suing the government of Sweden.
A case is currently being heard at the European Court of Human Rights, in France. Six youths from Portugal are suing 32 European countries. Similar cases could take place in Asia and South America, adding to a growing number of climate-change cases worldwide.