Hillel Aron

(CN) — Opening arguments in Montana's landmark youth-led climate change case, believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. to go to trial, kicked off on Monday.

The suit was filed in 2020 by 16 plaintiffs, now ages 5 to 22, and seeks no monetary damages. Instead, the plaintiffs in the case are asking the judge to find that the state has been violating Article XI of its own constitution, which reads, "The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations."

"Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on its rivers and lakes before its protections can be invoked," the plaintiffs' attorney Roger Sullivan said in his 35-minute opening statement Monday. "Because of the now unstable climate system caused by fossil fuel-generated gasses, Montana’s environment is neither clean or healthful."

Sullivan said that climate scientists believe Montana "has already warmed between 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit" during the last 50 years, "significantly more than the global average." He said the warming causes a slew of extreme weather events like drought and wildfires, which have an especially negative impact on young people, who are more vulnerable to asthma.

He also argued that Montana is particularly culpable for climate change. The state's total carbon dioxide emissions per year, he said, are equal to that of Argentina, Pakistan and the Netherlands, despite having only a fraction of those countries' population.

"The defendants have never denied a permit for fossil fuel activities in Montana," Sullivan said. That's by design, he argued – in 2011, the Montana Legislature banned courts from considering climate change as an environmental impact as part its environmental reviews.

A smoke-red sunset in western Montana. (William Munoz/Missoula Current file)
A smoke-red sunset in western Montana. (William Munoz/Missoula Current file)

Sullivan said the judge should declare that act unconstitutional, and should also enjoin the state "from approving fossil fuel activities."

"Restoring climate stability will take time," he concluded. "But every ton of CO2 we keep out of the air matters."

Assistant Attorney General Michael Russell gave a short, dismissive five-minute opening statement for the defense, saying, "In reality, the substance of this case is far more boring than the plaintiffs make it."

He pointed out that Montana's carbon emissions had gone down recently, and that its environmental laws had little impact on a problem that was clearly a global one.

"Montana’s emissions are simply too minuscule to make any difference,” ​​he said. “Climate change is a global issue that effectively relegates Montana’s role to that of a spectator.”

Rikki Held, a 22-year-old resident of Broadus, Montana, with a population of less than 500, is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit and testified on Monday. At one point, she appeared overcome with emotion as she described the impacts of climate change on her family's ranch and hotel business, saying, "It's obvious what's happening."

When asked by her attorney if she was optimistic about the future, Held replied, "Yes. Sometimes when I think about climate change it’s stressful. but you need to do something about it. This case is really about the people in our state."

Mae Nan Ellingson, the youngest delegate at Montana's 1972 constitutional convention, also testified. She recalled arguing to include strong environmental protections in the constitution, including the clause at issue that she said was intended to allow people to file lawsuits over environmental damage seeking injunctive relief.

The bench trial, overseen by Lewis and Clark County Judge Kathy Seeley, is expected to last two weeks. In 2021, she ruled against Montana's motion to dismiss the suit, writing that the plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that the state was "responsible for a significant amount of [the country's] carbon emissions." Last month, Seeley denied the defendants' motion for summary judgement.

The suit is funded by the nonprofit Our Children's Trust, which is bringing similar litigation in other states. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Oregon ruled that Juliana v. United States can proceed to trial.

This story is developing and will be updated...