Climate Science on the Docket: How Held v. Montana is Bridging Science and Law

Friday, August 11, 2023

In June, arguments wrapped up in a Montana trial that was both routine and historic—Held v. Montana. Routine, because plaintiffs are calling upon Montana 1st Judicial District Judge Kathy Seeley to determine whether certain provisions of Montana law violate their rights under the state constitution. That will involve statutory interpretation and constitutional law, as applied to the facts—standard fare for a state trial judge of general jurisdiction. But historic, for the substance of plaintiffs’ claims, and particularly notable for their showcasing of climate science, including both climate impacts within the state and Montana’s contribution to climate change.

Youth Protestors - There is no Planet B

The case has received considerable media attention and been the focus of legal scholarship. It centers on arguments by 16 youth plaintiffs that a provision of the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) barring consideration of climate change amounts to a violation of their right to a “clean and healthful environment,” as guaranteed by the Montana Constitution. (For more on state environmental rights amendments, check out the Climate Judiciary Project’s Climate Science and Law for Judges Fundamental Rights module.) In support, plaintiffs presented extensive evidence of the impacts of climate change, globally, within the state of Montana, and on themselves personally. They’re asking for declaratory relief, a binding statement from the court that the MEPA provisions are unconstitutional.

Climate science was literally front and center during the live-streamed bench trial. Over five days, plaintiffs’ attorneys presented numerous scientific figures detailing their alleged injuries, such as where reduced snowpack has affected tribal and cultural practices and the locations and dates of wildfires that have aggravated asthma and resulted in Montanans enjoying fewer outdoor recreational opportunities, such as sports, hiking, fishing, and hunting.

To help walk through each graphic, plaintiffs’ attorneys called on several notable scientific figures with expertise in various aspects of climate. This included testimony from Dr. Daniel Fagre (glaciology), Dr. Mark Jacobson (energy), Lori Byron, M.D. (health), Dr. Lise Vansusteren (mental health), Dr. Steven Running, Dr. Cathy Whitlock, and Peter Erickson. The last few were critical to the state’s argument, and aspects of their testimony are outlined below.

Steven Running, a world-renowned climate scientist whose work on the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was awarded the shared Nobel Prize, has been working at the University of Montana since 1979. His testimony centered on the unequivocal consensus of scientists about the human-caused impacts of climate change. Dr. Running was likewise unequivocal on the stand, declaring that “[a]t this point, there’s really no controversy in the formal literature at all.”

Cathy Whitlock, a distinguished paleoclimatologist and lead author of Montana’s 2017 State Climate Assessment, was also called to the stand. Dr. Whitlock offered testimony on the ways climate is changing in Montana generally, for example by increasing the likelihood of drought and wildfire conditions. In an interview after the trial, she noted that she did not discuss attribution science, as no specific studies have been conducted on events in Montana. Throughout her testimony, consensus science from the Montana Climate Assessment, as well as reports from the IPCC, were consistently referenced and relied upon.

The extent of Montana’s contribution to climate change was also at issue. On this point, plaintiffs offered testimony from Stockholm Environment Institute’s Peter Erickson, a climate researcher with extensive expertise in greenhouse gas emissions accounting. Erickson has provided relevant climate reports for landmark litigation, including the Dutch case Milieudefensie v. Royal Dutch Shell. In Held v. Montana, Erickson spoke to Montana’s contributions to climate change, as well as the substantial and untapped fossil fuel reserves in the state. On cross-examination, when pressed on whether these contributions were significant enough when compared to global emissions, Erickson leaned firmly on the IPCC, saying that “every tonne of carbon dioxide emissions adds to global warming.”

The state then presented what one legal observer described as a “’[n]othing-to-see-here-folks' argument.” Its attorneys argued that the issue is for resolution by the legislature and voters, not courts. Over a single day, they offered three witnesses. Montana Department of Environmental Quality director Chris Dorrington took the stand and spoke about how the agency processes environmental permits, focusing on the statutory restrictions on its ability to consider climate change. Testimony from Air, Energy, and Mining Administrator Sonja Nowakowski followed a similar pattern. The witnesses testified that the state constitutional provisions at issue did not alter their view of how they execute their statutory and constitutional mandates.

The defense also presented testimony from Dr. Terry Anderson, a professor at Montana State University and author of one of defendant’s expert reports. (The other expert report was authored by Dr. Judith Curry, who ultimately did not testify in the case. Dr. Curry has questioned the degree of human influence on climate change.) Asked five questions relating primarily to Montana’s emissions contributions, Dr. Anderson cited figures that have been called into question, resulting in a request by the plaintiffs to strike the testimony. This request was overruled by Judge Seeley.

With the trial concluded, parties will file their proposed final findings of fact and conclusions of law. While Judge Seeley will ultimately issue a ruling in this historic case, it certainly will not be the last time that climate science plays a central role in the courtroom. For more information, check out ELI’s Climate Judiciary Project.