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Date set for first youth-led climate trial in U.S. history 

In Held v. State of Montana, 16 youth plaintiffs have sued the state over its energy policy, alleging that fossil fuel development accelerates climate change.
Firefighters watch a hillside burn on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation on Aug 11, 2021, near Lame Deer, Mont., as the Richard Spring fire was threatening hundreds of homes.
Firefighters watch a hillside burn on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation on Aug 11, 2021, near Lame Deer, Mont., as the Richard Spring fire was threatening hundreds of homes.Matthew Brown / AP file

For the first time in U.S. history, a youth-led climate change lawsuit will go to trial. 

In Held v. State of Montana, 16 youth plaintiffs have sued the state over its energy policy, alleging that its heavy dependence on fossil fuel development accelerates climate change and infringes on their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. The trial will start Feb. 6, 2023, according to documents obtained by NBC News.

The complaint was filed in March 2020. In August 2021, a judge denied the state’s move to dismiss it, allowing it to move to trial — the first lawsuit of its kind in the United States.

“Children are uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis, which harms Youth Plaintiffs’ physical and psychological health and safety, interferes with family and cultural foundations and integrity, and causes economic deprivations,” the complaint states.

Montana is one of six states that mention environmental rights in its state constitution. Article IX, added in 1972, reads: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

Globally, lawsuits around climate change are becoming more frequent. A database kept by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School now includes case documents for more than 1,000 climate change lawsuits from around the world.

A federal judge in Australia ruled last May that the government had a “duty of care” for young people when making decisions involving climate change. But the group of teenage climate change activists lost its fight against the expansion of a coal mine.

In the U.S., however, such lawsuits remain rare. One, Juliana v. United States, was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon in 2015 and included allegations similar to those in Held v. Montana, but that case has not yet been given a trial date. 

“One way that people respond when other systems fail, when politics fail, governments fail, corporate governance fails is they go to court to try and seek redress,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Though the Montana trial is not set to start for another year, Burger said its outcome would be “highly significant.”

But he cautioned that a trial alone does not effect change.

“The fact that they’re going to trial doesn’t mean that the plaintiffs have won,” he said. “One of the things that the plaintiffs have to prove is that these government policies and statutes are a substantial cause of their injury. And that may have some interesting twists and turns.”

Image: Rikki Held
Rikki Held.Courtesy Rikki Held

Rikki Held, 20, the only named plaintiff in the suit, said: “It’s been a long time coming. … Having the courts actually going through … the actual scientific evidence, the best evidence we have so far, to help us protect our constitutional rights … protect the homes we love and the people we care about.”

Nate Bellinger, co-counsel for the youth plaintiffs and a senior staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on young people’s right to a safe climate, said: “We have an opportunity to go into open court before a judge, before the public, and tell this story from beginning to end. 

“How the state of Montana is permitting fossil fuels, how those fossil fuels are causing and contributing to climate change, how climate change is harming the 16 youth plaintiffs in really specific and individualized ways,” he said.

A representative for the state of Montana did not return a request for comment.

Last year, every county in Montana experienced some level of drought, and the state had a particularly active year for wildfires. Fires burned the fifth largest amount of acreage since 1980. Held pointed to them as examples of how climate change has continued to wreak havoc on their lives since the complaint was filed almost two years ago.

“Those played a big role in my family and our businesses,” Held said. “The roads were closed. … August was our peak season … with hunting season. And we lost, like, half our revenue, just because of road closures.”

Held said the heat and wildfires also directly affected her health. She said she experienced headaches from the smoke, and heat exhaustion, while working outside on her family’s 7,000-acre ranch.

“It’s really real and frightening,” she said. “It’s kind of frustrating that we’re not doing as much as we should.”

The trial court said it could not issue an injunction against the government of Montana, nor order what it should do. The court said, however, that it would still rule if the state is violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.

“To have a state court determine that the failure to consider climate change under a state’s environmental impact assessment law, is unconstitutional … that’s a big deal,” Burger said.

Image: Kian Tanner
Kian Tanner. Courtesy Kian Tanner

A ruling in the case could set significant legal precedent that other states or countries could cite.

“I feel that it is monumentous,” said Kian Tanner, another plaintiff in the case who was 14 when it was filed.

Both Held and Tanner said they hoped this case would put a spotlight on what it means to be a young person during the fight against climate change, and what it means to protect future generations.

“Our governments … they should serve us,” Held said. “If people are being hurt by supporting a fossil fuel system, then I just don’t see why you wouldn’t want to change and, you know, help the people of your state.”