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First U.S. youth climate change trial kicks off in Montana

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By Clark Mindock

(Reuters) – One of the first climate change trials in U.S. history is set to kick off on Monday in Helena, Montana, where 16 young people are seeking to hold the state accountable for fossil fuel-friendly policies that they say have exacerbated global warming and dimmed their futures.

Lawyers for the young plaintiffs will argue that the state’s ongoing support for polluting fuels like coal and natural gas violates a state constitutional provision that guarantees them a right to a “clean and healthful environment.” They will ask Judge Kathy Seeley, who is presiding over the two-week trial, to issue a declaratory judgment to that effect.

The plaintiffs, who were between 2 and 18 when they filed the lawsuit in 2020, hope such an order will set an important precedent and encourage lawmakers in the state capital to take greater action, according to Nate Bellinger, an attorney representing the plaintiffs with non-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust.

“What it’ll make clear, hopefully, is that governments have a constitutional obligation to protect their citizens – especially the youth, the most vulnerable citizens – from the dangers of climate change,” Bellinger said.

The plaintiffs originally had sought an injunction ordering the state to develop a remedial plan or policies to reduce emissions. But Seeley rejected that bid in 2021, since she said it would require the court to make policy decisions better left to other branches of government.

The state, which has repeatedly sought to delay or dismiss the case, has called it a “meritless” publicity stunt aimed at “shutting down responsible energy development in our state.”

Attorneys for the state have argued that climate change is a global problem best addressed through the political process — not the courts. They have also said the Montana court can’t grant the youth the relief they’re seeking since global warming can’t be traced directly to the state’s fossil fuel policies.

The lawsuit claims the government’s “systemic authorization, permitting, encouragement and facilitation” of fossil fuel use is exacerbating the climate crisis, despite what they say is an affirmative duty under a 1972 amendment to the Montana Constitution to protect and improve the environment for past and future generations.

All but the four youngest plaintiffs are expected to testify during the trial.

The plaintiffs have also claimed that the fossil fuel-dependent energy system degrades and depletes constitutionally protected public trust resources like rivers, lakes, fish and wildlife that they rely on for fishing, cultural traditions and recreation.

Last month, Seeley trimmed portions of the case that relate to the state’s energy policy, after the state legislature repealed provisions explicitly promoting fossil fuels.

She declined to call off the trial, as the state requested, finding other changes to challenged state policy hadn’t substantively altered the case. The Montana Supreme Court turned away a bid to delay it earlier this week, making it the first youth climate case to go to trial.

Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, said the trial, which is only the second on climate change in the U.S., is a significant step forward for climate litigation.

“A favorable decision could have a ripple effect around the world, inspiring new cases under multiple theories,” he said

The lawsuit is one of several constitutional climate cases filed by Our Children’s Trust on behalf of youth plaintiffs. A federal case that was dismissed in 2020 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was revived earlier this month. A similar case in Hawaii was set to head to trial in September, but has been delayed.

(Reporting by Clark Mindock, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Chizu Nomiyama)

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