This story was co-published with Teen Vogue.

The complaint in the groundbreaking climate lawsuit Held v. Montana reads like a history of grief and loss in the short lives of its plaintiffs. In it, displayed simply in a numbered list, are the ways the 16 youth have spent their childhoods watching the world burn. A rancher’s daughter recalls the sadness and stress of seeing a river cycle through droughts and floods, endangering and even killing her family’s cattle. Two brothers who love to hunt and fish recount how the forest they rely upon for food is deteriorating around them. A toddler struggles to breathe as wildfire smoke aggravates his asthma. A young Indigenous woman worries that inexorable changes to the seasons will cause her tribe to lose the ancient cultural traditions that have seen them through seasons of war, genocide, and dispossession. 

Each is tired of politicians not only failing to mitigate the problem, but, in their view, actively making it worse. In response, they have taken the bold step of suing the government of Montana, arguing that its enthusiastic support of fossil fuels violates their inalienable right, enshrined in Article II of the state constitution, to a “clean and healthful environment.” They accuse the governor and other officials of neglecting their constitutional duty to preserve and protect the environment for future generations. “Although defendants know that the youth plaintiffs are living under dangerous climatic conditions that create an unreasonable risk of harm, they continue to act affirmatively to exacerbate the climate crisis,” the suit states. 

pumpjacks in a field near a mountain range
Bakken oil well pump jacks seen here in agricultural fields near Bainville, Montana. Ken Cedeno / Corbis via Getty Images

The suit is named for Rikki Held, the rancher’s daughter and the only plaintiff who was 18 when Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Eugene, Oregon, filed the suit in March 2020. It is one of many similar lawsuits nationwide but the first to reach a courtroom. The trial begins Monday and is expected to last two weeks. The youth will take the stand, and the state will vehemently defend itself against what a spokesman for state Attorney General Austin Knudsen has called “meritless and politically motivated” claims by an organization trying “to impose their authoritarian climate agenda on us.”

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Defendants include Governor Greg Gianforte, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and four other state agencies. The natural resources department, the suit notes, is responsible for “help[ing] ensure Montana’s land and water resources provide benefits for present and future generations,” leading the plaintiffs to wonder how it can it possibly do that while leasing land for oil and gas drilling and devoting less than 1 percent of that revenue to protecting the state’s forests from wildfires.

Over the past decade, as the ravages of climate disasters and fossil fuel extraction have become inescapable, young people around the world have increasingly expressed despair, frustration, and fury.  One study found that 59 percent of respondents younger than 25 see climate change as a constant worry — and 39 percent say that concern impacts their daily lives. Young activists have repeatedly begged world leaders to take action, but even as those in power applaud their efforts, emissions continue to climb and extraction continues to increase.

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Feeling they have no other choice, 16 youth from throughout Montana decided to sue.

“I’ve done as much as I think I can do as a person,” Claire Vlases, one of the plaintiffs, told Grist. “And now I believe it’s time for my government to take action.”

a young woman and an older woman put signs on a car that say jobs climate action
Montana activists put up signs in Missoula in support of a 2021 economic recovery and infrastructure package prioritizing climate, care, jobs, and justice Janie Osborne / Getty Images for Green New Deal Network

Vlases, 20, is a student at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. She grew up in Bozeman, Montana, where she was a bright and socially conscious student who lobbied her high school to install solar panels and wrote legislation supporting the technology as a member of the school’s solar club. She joined the lawsuit when she was 17, before, she noted, she could even vote. Though some youth have lost faith in the legal system’s ability to protect them, Vlases wholeheartedly believes in the symbolic and practical power of the case.

“If Montana as a state is able to recognize its unconstitutional promotion of fossil fuels,” she said, “that would be a huge motivating factor for young people across the state to not feel like all hope is lost.”

Vlases, like all of the young plaintiffs, feels enormous responsibility. Even as she’s wrapping up the year’s schoolwork, she’s preparing for tough questions from the state’s attorneys. She’s also found herself in the unusual position of sharing her hopes, fears, and motivations with strangers. She consulted with her sister before talking with Grist, going over the talking points, making sure she got them right. It’s a wild situation to find herself in, she admits.

“I’m a little nervous. I’ve never done that before,” she said. “I hope that what I say matters to the people listening.” 

One of the people listening will be Judge Kathy Seeley of the First District Court in Helena. Vlases and the 15 other plaintiffs want her to rule that burning fossil fuels drives climate change, and to declare the state’s support of oil, natural gas, and coal unconstitutional. They also want Seeley to strike down a provision of the state Environmental Policy Act that bars the state from considering the climate implications of energy permitting decisions.

a large courthouse with steps and a round entry corner
Steps lead up to the Federal courthouse in Helena, Montana. Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In weighing those matters, Seeley will consider whether the plaintiff’s claims to injury are accurate; whether Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts can be measured incrementally; whether those impacts can be attributed to fossil fuel production; and whether a favorable ruling will help the plaintiffs and impact the state’s conduct. Melissa Hornbein, a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Center who’s working on the case, said the plaintiffs face enormous pressure.

“It takes real courage to stand up to your government and subject yourself to hours and hours of depositions by the state, and having your past and your personal life and your private life dug into by the state,” Hornbein said.

The state of Montana, led by a Republican supermajority, does not seem to believe Vlases and her fellow plaintiffs have much agency in this matter, preferring to cast them as puppets of nefarious private interests. State officials have called the lawsuit an act of “political theater” and accused Our Children’s Trust of using the 16 youth as ignorant props. But if it is political theater, it must be effective if the state is so worked up, Hornbein said.

“They understand how big of a deal this is,” said Hornbein.  

Montana is known for abundant natural beauty and vast public lands, a national destination for lovers of the outdoors. But its Republican-led legislature has been running counter to national decarbonization trends. The state is home to the nation’s largest recoverable coal reserves, as well as the Bakken Formation and its billions of barrels of untapped oil. The Big Sky state is the country’s fifth-largest producer of coal and its 12th-biggest oil producer, and multiple state lawmakers spent time in the oil, gas, and coal industries. Fossil fuel interests have contributed mightily to state legislative campaigns over the past 20 years. So far, one activist wrote in an op-ed to the Daily Montanan, Montana’s legislators have flagrantly ignored environmental protections, and judges have done little to enforce them. 

Yet Montana is on the front lines of climate change. Over the past decade, fiery summers have turned the state’s expansive blue skies gray and yellow with ash, scorched dense evergreen forests, and rendered great tracts of ranchlands useless.  

smoke billows out of trees near a dry yellow field as firefighters spray water
Fire Fighters battle a wildfire in Big Timber, Montana. Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Despite this, Montana lawmakers recently passed a bill curbing climate impact reviews for large fossil fuel projects. Opponents of the legislation say it was written as a reaction to a revoked permit for a NorthWestern Energy methane gas plant in Yellowstone County. It’s the latest in what policy experts consider a pattern of state policies that are friendlier toward energy interests than public interests. The plaintiffs argue that lawmakers have consciously prioritized the development of fossil fuels over the well-being of residents and the protection of public resources, including rivers, lakes, and wildlife.

The suit is “critically important at a time when our state government is actively undermining the things that make Montana unique,” said Hornbein. “We have a government that really seems bent on destroying it, frankly.”

The state has tried repeatedly to have the case dismissed. Legislators even attempted to change environmental protection laws to remove the legal basis of the complaint. The attorney general asked the state Supreme Court to take the case out of Seeley’s court and issue a stay blocking discovery just as the deposition of expert witnesses was to begin. It denied both requests. Seeley rejected yet another motion to dismiss late last month, though she did rule that the legislature’s recent repeal of the State Energy Policy, which the plaintiffs argue explicitly endorsed the development and use of fossil fuels, rendered that point moot and would not be considered at trial. 

Attorneys with Our Children’s Trust were too busy preparing to comment, but senior attorney Nate Bellinger told the Helena Independent-Record the case is “strong legally and factually.” The state constitution, he notes, clearly and specifically states that residents enjoy an inalienable right to a clean and healthful environment. “The courts over the years have given meaning to that constitutional language,” he said. 

Before that language was added to the constitution in 1972, the state was even friendlier toward extractive business interests, said Alex Skuntz, a University of Montana law student who has been researching and following the case closely. In that time, some likened Montana to a resource colony, one ruled by the “Copper Kings” who dominated state politics and culture and fought against pollution regulations while, say, insisting on the benefits of arsenic. “Things didn’t pass unless industry wanted them to pass,” said Skuntz, who was until this spring editor in chief of Public Land and Resources Review. As the copper industry grew, so did the environmental disasters associated with it, and the reign of the Copper Kings became the subject of massive grassroots opposition.  

In 1972, amid a national flurry of environmental laws and increased concern within Montana about the pace and impacts of environmental destruction, a bipartisan group of 100 delegates rewrote the state constitution in hopes of overturning the oligarchy of private interests that had historically run things. Montana followed Pennsylvania to become the second state in the union to assure its citizens the right to clean air and water (New York became the third in 2021).

Daniel Farber, an attorney and expert on environmental law at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that even if the plaintiffs win, a ruling may not lead to measurable action because the state’s legal code and regulatory structure favors the fossil fuel industry. A win might mean Seely “would issue some kind of opinion that the state government’s violating the Constitution, but not specifically tell them what to do about it,” Farber said. 

Still, such a ruling could provide a legal basis for more focused legal attacks in the future, particularly in other states with constitutional guarantees to a healthful environment or in the four states (Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) with lesser environmental protections enshrined in their constitutions. That could be important, as Our Children’s Trust has filed similar cases in all 50 states, and its federal lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, will soon become the second such case to go to trial. Farber says these suits may have a more symbolic impact individually, but they are part of a practical, comprehensive strategy to challenge polluting industries and weaken their grip on the legal system.

That’s a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of a handful of children and young adults. Claire Vlases considered that as she and her sister went over her talking points. She knows people have asked why she and the 15 others involved in the suit are subjecting themselves to so much pressure and unrelenting scrutiny. Even her sister has shown concern. The answer, she says, is straightforward.

“Taking a drastic measure of action is the only way that we’re going to get there,” Vlases said.

Even as Vlases and her 15 peers gather in Helena, smoke from scores of wildfires burning in Canada blankets much of the state. The air is unsafe to breathe, and fire season is just beginning. It’s a troubling portent of the long, hot summer ahead.

Akielly Hu contributed reporting to this story.