Wren Cilimburg

Last Monday I got up at 5 a.m., made some breakfast, and hopped in the car. Normally, an alpine start like that is preamble to a day of outdoor adventure. But instead of driving to the mountains, I made my way to Montana’s capital to support the youth plaintiffs in the historic Held v. Montana trial.

This lawsuit began in 2020, when 16 young Montanans sued the government for violating their right to a “clean and healthful environment” as promised by the Montana Constitution.

I sat in the courtroom on the day that witnesses for the defense testified, which made for an interesting judicial experience. I watched employees from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) argue that it was not within their “regulatory authority” to deny permits for fossil fuel activity even if they’re allowing activities that contribute to the climate crisis.

The state’s argument centered on the idea that the DEQ is only enforcing the law as it stands, and thus cannot take the action that the young Montanans desire. Lawyers for Our Children’s Trust, who represent the plaintiffs in this case, asked the DEQ employees if the Montana Constitution was part of the laws that they enforce, which the employees confirmed.

Thus, the lawyers argued, the DEQ has a responsibility to change the way they issue permits so that they comply with the Montana Constitution and protect citizens’ right to a clean and healthful environment. To do this necessitates change: the DEQ has never once denied a permit for fossil fuel activity.

Prior to the defense’s argument, the case consisted of a week of testimony from the plaintiffs, in which the young Montanans explained how the state’s changing climate has affected their jobs, recreation, and mental health.

Judge Kathy Seeley will not announce a decision on the case for weeks or months. But this trial has important takeaways regardless of the judicial decision.

Missoulian Grace Gibson-Snyder, a plaintiff in the case, said that while it was challenging to see the state government continue to deny responsibility for their actions, she was proud to have taken action and shared her perspective. And the perspective that Grace shared, as well as the other plaintiffs, leads to one important takeaway from the trial: climate change is not simply an environmental issue.

It’s a financial issue, as highlighted by plaintiff Taleah’s testimony, where she explained that wildfire smoke had limited her work caring for horses, leading to a decrease in her income. It’s a cultural issue: Shane Doyle talked about how the Crow Fair, an important annual tradition for the Crow Tribe, was negatively impacted due to extreme heat. And it’s an issue of well-being: plaintiffs spoke of the impacts of the climate crisis on their mental health, and pediatrician Dr. Lori Byron noted that climate change can cause Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which damage health long-term.

Although the negative impacts of climate change are massive, Grace doesn’t think the future is grim. In fact, her most important takeaway from the trial was the inspiration that came from seeing the many clean energy options we have, options that she says are “better for the environment and our health, but also will be economically beneficial for the state of Montana”. And it’s true: no matter how you slice it, a clean energy future is coming. Countries all over the world are shifting to renewable energy at accelerating rates, and the cost of technologies like solar and wind power are falling. But as the recent trial highlighted, every level of society needs to recognize these truths and make the shift to the sustainable future that is just within reach.

So, what should we remember about the historic Held v. Montana trial? I think Grace put it perfectly in an email she shared with me: “I want people to remember several things about this landmark trial.

First, the state admitted to the existence of anthropogenic climate change, which is a huge victory for climate science. This science clearly shows that we are on a timeline - we must act now to protect our state, our health, and all of our Earth. And this is the second thing that people should take away: our case was about acting.

Our case is about taking the action that is most appropriate for the earth and the people; youth - some who are too young to vote - are asking one branch of the government to hold another responsible and protect our constitutional rights. It is not an attack on Montana's institutions - instead, underpinning our action is actually trust in the institution, specifically the judicial branch, which has a duty to uphold the constitutional rights of citizens. Most of all, I want people to recognize that we are motivated by love for Montana. All we want to do is protect it.”

We need to act and we need to act now. Yes, we need change on a societal level. But there are plenty of concrete things we as individuals can do to inspire change. One of these is to support the next climate lawsuit, Juliana v. United States. This lawsuit was filed way back in 2015, and continuous opposition from the Department of Justice has prevented the case from reaching trial.

But just a few weeks ago, Federal Judge Ann Aiken gave the green light for the case to go to trial, based on a requested amendment from the plaintiffs. The DOJ is already fighting this decision, so the youth plaintiffs need all the help they can get to convince the DOJ to do the opposite. Learn how you can help by calling, emailing, or donating today. And stay tuned here in Montana - regardless of Judge Seeley’s decision, Held is expected to be appealed to the state Supreme Court and the youth plaintiffs will need our continued support.

Lawsuits are a new, powerful, and necessary part of climate action. But we need other types of action too: vote, help out on campaigns, and get your friends to do the same. Having bold representatives that believe in the clean energy transition is one of the most important pieces of the solution. Beyond the legal and political world, decisions in our personal lives are still important.

Individual action isn’t the complete answer to the climate crisis, but shifting to sustainable transportation and energy efficient housing are part of what needs to happen next. Look into getting an electric vehicle-- the cost might be surprisingly similar to that of a gasoline car! Or try a ride on one of Missoula’s awesome electric buses. If you’re a homeowner, reducing fossil fuels from appliances is critical. If you’re not sure where to start, check out the new podcast Breaking the Carbon Bond, which walks you through the whole process of retrofitting a home to be carbon neutral. You’ll even hear my voice, as I ask a lot of questions on this pod!

The youth plaintiffs in Held v. Montana spent countless hours of their lives over the past three years fighting for our future. As a young person myself, I left Helena last week inspired by the energy and emotion that has driven this case forward. I’m feeling refreshed and ready to learn about the way forward, talk with people on the front lines, and most of all, roll up my sleeves. A livable and carbon free world is ours if we want it-- let’s get to work.
Wren Cilimburg hails from Missoula and recently graduated from Claremont McKenna College.
Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you two Fridays of every month. Learn more about our work and sign up for our e-newsletter at missoulaclimate.org