Unpacking the Headline: Climate Science and Held v. State of Montana

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

In 1972, amidst calls for reform and on the heels of the nation’s first Earth Day, Montana amended its constitution to include an inalienable “right to a clean and healthful environment.” According to Art. IX, Section 1, this includes, among other things, that “[t]he legislature shall provide adequate remedies for the protection of the environmental life support system from degradation and provide adequate remedies to prevent unreasonable depletion and degradation of natural resources.”

climate protest

Fast-forward a half century: on August 14, Judge Kathy Seeley of Montana’s 1st Judicial District issued an opinion in Held v. State of Montana finding that Montana’s constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” includes climate, and that a state law provision barring the consideration of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate impacts in environmental reviews violated that right. The decision came 1,249 days after the initial complaint was filed by Rikki Held and 15 other youth plaintiffs on March 13, 2020. (By comparison, the federal lawsuit Juliana v. United States was filed in 2015, has made two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, and remains ongoing in federal district court after Judge Ann Aiken granted in June 2023 plaintiffs’ motion to amend their complaint to include only declaratory relief.)

Judge Seeley’s decision has been widely reported in the media, with headlines describing the opinion as “historic,” “landmark,” and a “watershed moment.” Her thoughtful reliance on climate science is one reason for the extensive coverage. The case represents a breakthrough in terms of the judicial process enabling the development of a factual record about the causes and impacts of climate change on the lives of people and communities.

After trial but before the opinion was issued, we published a blog that highlighted a few of the scientists who testified during trial, with many presenting evidence of the causes of climate change and the impacts Montanans are experiencing. That was the plaintiffs’ case. We now have the judgment of the court.

This installment focuses on how Judge Seeley integrated the scientific testimony into her opinion. It presents select passages from Held, with an emphasis on statements based on consensus scientific findings. Many quotes are presented in full to provide a flavor of the precise language she used.

For general context, there are nearly 1,000 references to various aspects of climate science throughout the opinion, citing heavily to plaintiffs’ expert testimony. There, Judge Seeley found all of plaintiffs’ scientist experts to be “well-qualified,” “informative,” and “credible.” In contrast, the testimony of Dr. Terry Anderson, put forward by the state to answer questions about Montana’s contributions to climate change, was “not well-supported, contained errors, and was not given weight by the Court.” (p. 66, para. 211).

Turning to the decision, Judge Seeley organized the factual conclusions by starting with general climate science and climate science projections, then moving into the ways climate change is impacting Montana and the plaintiffs, and finally on how Montana’s actions contribute to climate change.

Climate Science in the Foreground

In this section, as the selections below demonstrate, Judge Seeley is clear in stating that experts agree that climate change is real, driven by human-caused burning of fossil fuels, and is causing increasingly devastating impacts.

  • Climate change is real, and it is human caused: “There is overwhelming scientific consensus that Earth is warming as a direct result of human GHG emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.” (p. 19, para. 67, citing Dr. Steven Running and Dr. Cathy Whitlock).
  • Climate change impacts Montana in many ways: “Anthropogenic climate change is impacting, degrading, and depleting Montana’s environment and natural resources, including through increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, increasing droughts and aridification, increasing extreme weather events, increasing severity and intensity of wildfires, and increasing glacial melt and loss.” (p. 35, para. 140, citing testimony from Dr. Jack Stanford, Dr. Cathy Whitlock, and Dr. Daniel Fagre).
  • Climate threatens public health, and children specifically: “The unrefuted testimony at trial established that climate change is a critical threat to public health.” (p. 34, para. 138, citing Dr. Lori Byron). This impacts young persons in particular because “[c]hildren are uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, which harms their physical and psychological health and safety, interferes with family and cultural foundations and integrity, and causes economic deprivations.” (p. 28, para. 104, citing Dr. Lori Byron, Dr. Lisa Van Susteren, and Michael Durglo, Jr.). Moreover, “[t]he physiological features of children make them disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and air pollution.” (p. 31, para. 120, citing Dr. Lori Byron and Dr. Lisa Van Susteren).
  • Reduced snowpack and wildfires are connected to plaintiffs’ bottom line: “Climate change has impacted the snowpack on the ranch in recent years, with snow typically not lasting through the winter. Reduced winter snowpack means less natural water available for cattle. As a result, the cattle must rely on water tanks, which are far apart and expensive to install. With less water, there is also less grass available for the cattle to eat. With less water and grasses, cattle travel further for water and food, and lose weight. This means the cattle are not as valuable and the ranch profits and income declined. Wildfires have closed roads around Broadus limiting the number of people that can reach Rikki [Held]'s family motel business, causing lost income for Rikki and her family.” (p. 47-48, para. 195(i)-(k)).
  • Montana’s emissions contribute to global climate change: “Montana is a major emitter of GHG emissions in the world in absolute terms, in per person terms, and historically.” (p. 68, para. 222, citing Peter Erickson). Judge Seeley went on to conclude that, “[w]hat happens in Montana has a real impact on fossil fuel energy systems, CO2 emissions, and global warming.” (p. 70, para. 237, citing Peter Erickson).

MEPA Limitation Violates Plaintiffs’ Rights

After describing how additional emissions from Montana are worsening climate change and resulting in impacts to Montanans, Judge Seeley continued her fact-finding with a discussion of the statute at issue, the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), and the specific provision at issue—described by Judge Seeley as the “MEPA Limitation”— before ending with findings related to the state constitution’s environmental rights amendment.

In addition to these factual findings, Judge Seeley laid out a series of legal conclusions, beginning with standing and ending with her conclusion that the MEPA Limitation violated the state constitution. Excerpts from the relevant sections are as follows:

  • Injuries to plaintiffs are numerous and varied: “Youth Plaintiffs have experienced past and ongoing injuries resulting from the State’s failure to consider GHGs and climate change, including injuries to their physical and mental health, homes and property, recreational, spiritual, and aesthetic interests, tribal and cultural traditions, economic security, and happiness.” (p. 86, para. 4).
  • On redressability, after noting that the psychological satisfaction of prevailing at trial is not enough, Judge Seeley plainly stated why declaring the MEPA Limitation unconstitutional would provide redress for plaintiff’s injuries: “Defendants can alleviate the harmful environmental effects of Montana’s fossil fuel activities through the lawful exercise of their authority if they are allowed to consider GHG emissions and climate change during MEPA review, which would provide the clear information needed to conform their decision-making to the best science and their constitutional duties and constraints, and give them the necessary information to deny permits for fossil fuel activities when inconsistent with protecting Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.” (pp. 88-89, para. 18).
  • The Montana Constitution includes climate rights: “Based on the plain language of the implicated constitutional provisions, the intent of the Framers, and Montana Supreme Court precedent, climate is included in the ‘clean and healthful environment’ and ‘environmental life support system.’” (pp. 97-98, para. 49).
  • The MEPA Limitation violates the Montana Constitution. “By enacting and enforcing the MEPA Limitation, the State is failing to meet their affirmative duty to protect Plaintiffs’ right to a clean and healthful environment, and to protect Montana’s natural resources from unreasonable depletion.” (p. 99, para. 55). When government actions allegedly infringe on a fundamental right, reviewing courts apply strict scrutiny. Judge Seeley applied strict scrutiny in Held to determine whether the MEPA Limitation was “narrowly tailored” to support a “compelling interest,” and concluded it did not. Interestingly, “[t]he State did not put forward any evidence of a compelling governmental interest for the MEPA Limitation.” (p. 101, para. 63). However, “[e]ven if the State had established a compelling interest for the statute, the MEPA Limitation is not narrowly tailored to serve any interest.” (p. 101, para. 67).

What’s Next?

Likely, an appeal. The structure of Montana’s judicial system means the case may receive a decision from the state’s highest court sooner than would happen in states with an intermediate court of appeals. In Held, the Montana District Court functioned as the trial court, with any appeal going directly to the Montana Supreme Court. Under state law, the government defendants have 60 days from issuance of the decision to file an appeal.

Interested observers will also already be looking ahead to another youth climate rights case, Navahine F. v. Hawai‘i Department of Transportation. That case, which relies on an environmental rights amendment in the Hawai‘i Constitution, is scheduled to begin trial in June 2024 in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit in Hawai‘i.

For more information on the Held decision, listen to Episode 29, Season 5, of ELI's People Places Planet Podcast.

For more information on environmental rights amendments in state constitutions, see the Fundamental Rights module of the Climate Judiciary Project’s Climate Science and Law for Judges curriculum.