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“Watershed Moment”: Montana Rules Youth Have Constitutional Right to Healthy Climate

StoryAugust 16, 2023
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In a landmark climate case, a judge in Montana has ruled in favor of a group of young people who had sued the state for violating their constitutional rights as it pushed policies that encouraged the use of fossil fuels. In her decision, Montana Judge Kathy Seeley wrote, “Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate.” We speak with plaintiff Olivia Vesovich about the historic ruling, which she calls “the most life-changing news that I’ve ever heard.” “It’s a real watershed moment,” adds Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, a not-for-profit law firm representing the 16 youth plaintiffs between ages 5 and 22. “There’s going to be huge ripple effects as other courts start stepping up and doing their role in our democracy to be a check on the other branches of government.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

In a landmark climate case, a judge in Montana has ruled in favor of a group of young people who have sued Montana for violating their constitutional rights as it pushed policies that encouraged the use of fossil fuels. In her decision, Montana Judge Kathy Seeley wrote, “Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate.” The judge went on to rule, quote, “Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury,” unquote.

The case was brought by 16 children and young adults, ranging in age from 5 to 22. This is Rikki Held, the lead plaintiff in the case, known as Held v. Montana.

RIKKI HELD: This ruling is just so important in Montana and for outside and supporters. … This is such a huge issue. And for the judge to say that Montana is significantly contributing to global climate change just kind of leaves me with this feeling that our actions do matter.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Olivia Vesovich is one of the other plaintiffs in the landmark Montana climate case, 20-year-old student at University of Montana. She’s in Missoula right now. And in Eugene, Oregon, we’re joined by Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director with Our Children’s Trust.

Julia, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of this case. And why Montana?

JULIA OLSON: Good morning, Amy.

This is a historic decision. It’s the first of its kind ever in U.S. history. And why Montana? Montana is one of the states in our country that has had laws on the books that requires it to promote fossil fuel energy and fossil fuel development at a time when we’re in a climate emergency. And their laws also require them to ignore the consequences of that and the ways in which greenhouse gas emissions from those fuels fuel the climate crisis.

And so, these young people used the Montana Constitution, which protects not just the right to a clean and healthful environment, but also the right to dignity, to health and safety and happiness and equal protection of the law. And they sued the state, challenging these laws and their implementation, and, in June, had a seven-day trial. And we just won this historic ruling saying that that legal regime, and the conduct under it, is unconstitutional.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are the laws automatically struck down, Julia?

JULIA OLSON: They are. They’re struck down. And not only did the court declare them unconstitutional, but said that the state was enjoined from implementing them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Olivia Vesovich into this conversation. You’re one of the Montana youth plaintiffs in a city I hold dear, Missoula, Montana, where my first college roommate was from, went to Hellgate High. Olivia, talk about your response to the judge’s ruling? Where were you when you heard?

OLIVIA VESOVICH: I was out running errands. I’m going on a camping trip to Oregon, actually, next week, and so I was out running errands, and I saw an email from Mat dos Santos, one of our lawyers. And I pulled over off of like a busy road, and I just — I got onto a side street, and I just sat in the car on this Zoom call hearing the most life-changing news that I’ve ever heard.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did you get involved with this, Olivia? How old were you when this case started? And why do you care so much about the issue of the climate and the fate of the planet?

OLIVIA VESOVICH: I was 16 when I joined this case, and it was because my science teacher knew that I was deeply involved in climate organization in Missoula. And he heard about this case, and he reached out to me, and he asked me if I would like to join. And the minute that I heard about what this case was and what it meant for my state and what it meant for the world, or what it could mean, I immediately wanted to join and share my story of how climate change has impacted me, how it’s harmed me, because I think so many youths are impacted by climate change, and we don’t even know the full extent of it because we have become so used to what climate change means. And that’s a horrible thing to say.

And I think that joining this case gave me hope that I didn’t have to be used to any of the symptoms of being [inaudible] from wildfire smoke or having to deal with respiratory — other respiratory issues from pollution, and knowing that this case was going to allow myself to share my message but also to be a voice for the youth, because so many youths do not have this option and opportunity to become so — to have such an impact on climate change. And I knew that this case was going to be, because any time in the United States that we’ve been granted civil rights, that’s become — that’s been from a court case. And I knew that this was a very high likelihood that it would be. And it is.

AMY GOODMAN: This is particularly poignant, Olivia, this decision coming down this week in the midst of the worst wildfire in a hundred years in U.S. history in Hawaii on Maui. We are counting the dead now. It’s over a hundred, could be so many more. Your thoughts about this, learning about this, as you talk about fires in Montana and Canada, and how that affects you?

OLIVIA VESOVICH: My heart is just so completely and utterly broken for the people of Hawaii right now. I am utterly devastated that they are going through this, because it is a fate I would wish upon no one. And that is just one of the most horrible things that I could even imagine. And to know that their — the recovery isn’t even being dealt with in the best way possible is also heartbreaking. And, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Julia Olson — you also are involved with a case in Hawaii, where 14 young people filed a lawsuit against Hawaii and other entities. Explain.

JULIA OLSON: So, the state of Hawaii has been a leader in climate change in some ways. They have put laws on their books that require the state to decarbonize their energy system by about 2045. And they understand, being islands and dependent on the climate system, as it has been in the past, for their water and their food and their livelihoods, how much they’re affected. And what we’re seeing with the fire on Maui, that’s going to be increasing in the years and decades that come.

And so, the problem with Hawaii is their greenhouse gas emissions from their transportation system are increasing. And so these 14 youth in Hawaii are suing the state, similar to the Held plaintiffs in Montana, using the Hawaii Constitution, which also protects their rights to a healthy environment, to public trust resources and to health and safety and equal protection of the law. And we have a trial date set for June 24th, 2024, to really put forward the evidence of how the Department of Transportation and the state of Hawaii are making their transportation emissions worse and increasing, rather than going in the right direction. And they’ll miss their targets. And so we’re holding them accountable for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Julia, can you also talk about your case, Juliana v. United States, a landmark youth climate lawsuit that accuses the U.S. government of perpetuating the climate crisis and endangering the lives of citizens? CNN recently published an article titled “Biden is campaigning as the most pro-climate president while his DOJ works to block a landmark climate trial.” Explain.

JULIA OLSON: Yeah, absolutely. So, Our Children’s Trust has been representing youth on climate and suing government since 2010. And in 2015, we filed a case on behalf of 21 youth, under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, against the federal government for its active role in causing the climate crisis. And today, for example, the United States supplies 23% of the world’s fossil fuels. And under the Biden administration, it has made the U.S. the largest oil and gas producer, following on the Obama and Trump legacies, as well. And so, this case is trying to hold the federal government accountable for its role in causing the climate crisis.

The case has been going for eight years. We hit some roadblocks. We had extreme opposition from the Trump administration. And now we’re back in the trial court. We’re heading back to trial. We hope to be in trial in the spring. But the Biden administration and the attorney general, Garland, and Solicitor General Prelogar are fighting tooth and nail, just like the Trump administration did, to stop this trial, saying that it would be a waste of judicial resources.

But the Montana case really illustrates that when you can present the evidence, you can have experts on the stand testifying about climate science and the energy transition and the mental and physical health impacts of climate on young people, and then when Olivia and her co-plaintiffs can take the stand and really tell the stories of how they are being harmed today — this is not a future problem. They’re being significantly harmed today, and those rise to a level of a constitutional violation. And that’s why we need trial against the United States, as well. And so, we’re hoping to get there in the spring, but the Biden administration is trying to stop us.

AMY GOODMAN: And if you can just explain in a minute what Our Children’s Trust is, how it was founded?

JULIA OLSON: I founded the organization in 2010. We’re a nonprofit public interest law firm. And we do one thing: We represent youth. We sue governments for their role in causing climate crisis. And we’re trying to have government policies really adhere to constitutional rights under the best available science of what it means to protect this climate and our world for future generations.

AMY GOODMAN: And how, specifically, do you think this Montana ruling, a huge victory for Our Children’s Trust and the young people who brought this case, like Olivia, will affect other cases that you have and others have around climate change in this country?

JULIA OLSON: It’s a real watershed moment. There’s going to be huge ripple effects as other courts start stepping up and doing their role in our democracy to be a check on the other branches of government. Same as when we had our first same-sex marriage ruling that that was a constitutional right or when segregation was declared unconstitutional, I think this case will go down in history as significant as those.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Olivia Vesovich, it means you’re going down in history, as you look forward at the future for all of us. What do you say to those, and in your state, the Republican lawmakers, who are climate change deniers?

OLIVIA VESOVICH: I say that the facts are there if you look in the science. And I understand that there are a lot of aspects of, say, coal and its importance in our economy in Montana, but I know that, like, Mark Jacobson testified to — one of our experts — testified to the transition to renewable energies and how it’s not only probable, but it’s feasible and it’s possible in our state. And I say that, to the Republicans, that I love this land just as much as you love this land. We all in Montana use our land so much. We go hunting. We go fishing. We go recreating. We go hiking. And everybody, I think, in Montana has this shared connection of love for our land. And this is how my love for this world is manifesting.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Olivia, before we end, you were talking about the Stanford University professor, Mark Jacobson, but what do you say to other young people who are interested in getting involved in cases like this?

OLIVIA VESOVICH: I say if you have an opportunity to do so, do so. There’s an opportunity for young Californians right now to join the court case. But I’d say that there are so many other ways to get involved. There are local organizations. I say that everybody should be in a local chapter of a climate organization in their town, because that is what this climate crisis needs, is local organization across the entire world.

AMY GOODMAN: Olivia, we’re going to leave it there. A very important message, Olivia Vesovich, one of the Montana youth plaintiffs. Julia Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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