Staff Ed: Montana climate decision grants youth activists a rare win

There’s a demeaning feeling about not being listened to. It’s dispiriting and enraging to feel like one’s voice has no weight or power — like no matter how desperately one tries to be heard, the static interference of greed and selfishness in our society drowns it out. This is how the youth of our country have felt for countless years, as our cries for governmental climate action and regulation of fossil fuel companies continually have fallen on deaf ears.

And yet, our generation gets criticized for speaking out. We are dismissed by those who have the capacity to take concrete climate action but refuse to do so, as “conformative activists,” i.e. young, naive kids who merely complain about the way things are but don’t take direct measures to address them.

That changed on Aug. 14.

In the landmark court ruling Held v. Montana, a group of 16 youth climate activists and symbolic protestors from Montana proved to the world that the young generation will not back down in the fight for its future. The message their victory conveys is clear: if our current leaders will not take immediate action against the climate crisis, our future leaders will instead.

The roots of the case extend back to 2020, when 16 youths, then between two and 18 years old, sued the state of Montana over a provision in its Environmental Policy Act. Called the MEPA Limitation, the provision prohibited Montana state agencies from considering the climatic impacts of fossil fuel projects when deciding whether to approve them or not. The youth plaintiffs claimed that the detrimental ecological effects of those projects, made easier to approve by the MEPA Limitation, violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment,” as stated in Montana’s state constitution.

In what was the first youth-led and first constitutional climate case in the nation’s history, Judge Kathy Seely ruled in favor of the young plaintiffs, pronouncing the MEPA Limitation unconstitutional, and, in the process, creating powerful waves of change that will have resounding impacts on the climate fight, far beyond Montana’s borders.

To the youth of our country, this case is a huge deal.

It represents a decisive shift from the seemingly endless cycle of bitter frustration and gnawing anger that has tormented our consciences for so long, as we watch our governments remain in passive while our planet slowly withers away. 

It’s a defiant, youth-led stance against the rapacity of an entire state. It’s a powerful source of inspiration and hope that our generation can grasp onto, a reminder that we have the power to make real change in our society.

But many question how big an impact the case will have: the ruling grants Montana’s decision-makers the ability to consider the environmental impacts of proposed fossil fuel projects, but it does not place pressure on them to actually refrain from approving those projects.

And yet, in addition to the profound emotional impact of the case and its high likelihood of inspiring increased youth-led climate litigation, the technical terms of the ruling hold great implications for future climate suits.

The 16 youth leaders sued Montana for violating their right to a healthy environment. This is a revolutionary approach to advocating for climate action.

The fact of the matter is that most people do not feel obligated or motivated to take on governments or oil and gas corporations. Framing efforts for environmental action as a “fight” — a constant battle against colossal fossil fuel conglomerates — can drain the public of their motivation to contribute to the climate movement.

But Americans love their rights. And they hate when they’re taken away.

Portraying the evils of fossil fuel companies as violations of one’s fundamental right to a healthy environment could be a much more effective way of spurring the public to speak out and take action.

This concept also shifts the burden of climate action from the public to the true culprits of the climate crisis: the producers. If a healthy environment is a basic civil liberty, fossil fuel producers will have to limit their ecological impact for fear of being brought to court and facing consequences— something the Montana youth showed could be successfully accomplished.

All of this is, of course, assuming that a state’s constitutional right to a healthy environment exists. As of now, only six states have such environmental rights.

But that is quickly changing.

According to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, many states have expanded efforts to establish environmental amendments to their constitutions in 2023.

The success of Held v. Montana could energize these efforts, paving the way for extremely effective legal channels and granting climate litigants the locus standi to combat fossil fuel companies in court.

Our generation doesn’t need to wait for avaricious politicians to pull their heads out of the sand. We don’t need to wait for our calls for change to be answered by dismissive governments.

We are that change. We can take matters into our own hands.

For it’s there that the future of our planet lies.

1,033 thoughts on “Staff Ed: Montana climate decision grants youth activists a rare win