Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems, like the future of our planet, and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

I’ve been hearing a lot about this landmark climate case in Montana, where a group of young people sued the state, and won. Our senior reporters, Juliana Merullo and Janek Schaller, were following the case closely, and they’re here to fill us in on the details. 

Juliana Merullo: Hiya Megan! 

Janek Schaller: Thanks for having us. 

Megan Hall: So can you tell us more about what this case was all about? 

Juliana Merullo: Sure. Basically, back in 2020 16 young people filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana, and after years of delays, it finally went to trial this summer.

Janek Schaller: The plaintiffs – who ranged in age from 2 to 18 when the lawsuit was filed -basically argued that the state had failed its responsibility to provide a clean and healthy environment for the people who live there. 

Megan Hall: I didn’t realize that states had to provide that! 

Juliana Merullo: Well, most don’t. Only two other states give their residents the right to a healthy environment, and that’s part of what makes Montana so special. 

Janek Schaller: Anne Hedges, the Co-Director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, was an expert witness at the trial. She says that when Montana was re-writing its constitution in the 1970s, 

Anne Hedges: “they created a constitution that had the provision in it that every person has the right to a clean and healthful environment. And that right is a fundamental right, it is not something that we have to go out of our way to implement- we all have that right.  Inherently.”

Janek Schaller: The young people said the state is denying their right to a healthy environment by making climate change worse for them and for future generations. 

Megan Hall: In what way? 

Janek Schaller: They focused on a law that requires environmental impact reports for proposed projects.

Juliana Merullo: That means before the state can offer permits for fossil fuel drilling or a coal mine, they have to do an environmental report first. 

Janek Schaller: But in 2011, the legislature passed an amendment saying those reports couldn’t consider impacts beyond state borders. 

Juliana Merullo: This was called the “climate exception” because it implied emissions – which aren’t kept within state borders – wouldn’t be considered at all in the permitting process. 

Janek Schaller: Then in the spring of 2023, when the trial was about to happen, the legislature amended that same law to say, explicitly this time, that climate change could NOT be used as a reason to block extraction projects.

Megan Hall: Wait, why are these environmental impact reports so important? 

Juliana Merullo: These reports are a key step in getting new extraction projects approved. If they’re not allowed to include the potential climate impacts and emissions of something like a new drill site, then they’re ignoring how it might impact Montana’s clean and healthful environment. 

Janek Schaller: Anne has been involved in these permitting processes for thirty years, and she says

Anne Hedges: Montana has never denied a permit for a fossil fuel project. 

Juliana Merullo: The state basically defended this by arguing that Montana is just a small state, and their emissions don’t matter on a global scale

Megan Hall: How did the young people make their case? 

Janek Schaller: Over the course of the trial, their lawyers brought in different experts to testify about the extent of the climate crisis. And the state didn’t contest any of it. As Anne says, 

Anne Hedges: So it’s not that we’re this insignificant, small Podunk contributor to the climate crisis. The experts show that Montana’s emissions and our fossil fuels can have a profound effect on the climate if we’re not careful. And the state had no response to that.

Megan Hall: So, what happened? 

Juliana Merullo: The judge decided in favor of the young people, and even though the state says it will appeal, it was a big win for the climate movement, both symbolically and legally. 

Janek Schaller: From now on, the state will have to consider climate impacts when it makes decisions about fossil fuel projects. 

Juliana Merullo: But beyond just Montana, Anne hopes this case is the first domino to fall when it comes to young people holding their states accountable for climate change. There’s another case in Hawai’i that’s set to go to trial in 2024, and a federal case that’s also working its way through the system. 

Megan Hall: We’ll have to keep our eye on those! Thanks Juliana and Janek! And thanks to Dana Drugmand for her help on this episode. That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the publics radio dot org slash Possibly. 

Possibly is a co-production of The Public’s Radio, Brown University’s Institute for Environment and Society and Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative.

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