“Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as part of the environmental life-support system.”
As part of our series on personal climate action earlier this summer, we interviewed Claire Vlases, a young plaintiff in the Held v. Montana climate lawsuit, about her experience taking what some would consider an extreme action for the climate: suing her state government.
At the time, she told us: “I think taking a drastic measure of action is the only way that we’re going to get heard. I think young people across the state are interested in knowing what we can actually do, and what lengths people will go to feel heard. And we’re excited to see the result of the trial.”
On Monday, a verdict was handed down in the case. Judge Kathy Seeley sided with Vlases and her 15 compatriots, ruling that the state’s fossil fuel policies violated the youths’ constitutionally protected right in Montana to a clean and healthful environment.
As Grist’s climate solutions fellow Katie Myers wrote earlier this week, the decision could create a precedent for future lawsuits and could also impact current climate lawsuits across the country. This case was the first of its kind to go to trial — but Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm that represented the youth plaintiffs, has youth-led climate lawsuits pending in four other states, as well as a federal case.
Seeley, the judge, found that “every additional ton of greenhouse gas emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries.” Her ruling cited multiple and specific ways climate change has already impacted each of the plaintiffs.
“The legal community has been fearful that judges won’t understand these cases, and she blew that out of the water,” Julia Olson, the founder of Our Children’s Trust, told the New York Times. “It was digestible, she understood it, and the findings were beautiful.”
We caught up briefly with Claire Vlases to hear her thoughts on the results of the lawsuit. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q. How are you feeling now that the verdict has arrived?
A. This is a life-changing decision, and not just for me and the other plaintiffs. It will affect all of Montana because now we know that the state must not continue “business as usual.” The decision has validated the challenges in my life that are due to climate change, and for the first time in my life, my government has said: “We hear you, and we will protect your rights.” As a young person, it often feels like what I say or do does not matter when it comes to policymaking or any actual change. Now, I feel hope for the future in a way I never had before. I hope that the decision inspires other young people around the world to stand up for their rights, even in the face of adversity.
Q. What takeaways do you have from being a part of this historic trial?
A. This trial will set a precedent for the future. Young people matter. Environmental protection matters. Our rights matter. It makes me have faith in our democratic system, and that it’s OK to speak up when your government has not been respecting the rights you are guaranteed. We are heard.
Although the ruling will almost certainly be appealed, the timing of this decision is poignant. Many of the young Montana plaintiffs testified to the ways that climate change has impacted their lives, from oppressive summer heat to wildfires that creep ever close to their homes. The summer of 2023 has been a record-setter for those deadly climate impacts.
The Maui wildfires, which have now claimed at least 99 lives, have been declared the worst disaster in Hawaiian state history and the deadliest U.S. fire in over a century.
Hawaiʻi has its own youth-led climate lawsuit, which will see its day in court next summer. Although the cases are different, they have some fundamental things in common. Similar to Montana, Hawai‘i’s state constitution guarantees that “Each person has the right to a clean and healthful environment, as defined by laws relating to environmental quality, including control of pollution and conservation, protection and enhancement of natural resources.”
The Hawai‘i suit, brought by 14 young plaintiffs who are also represented by Our Children’s Trust, focuses less on energy development and more on projects like highway expansion — the plaintiffs are suing the state’s Department of Transportation for its role in promoting a polluting system that will “lock in and escalate the use of fossil fuels, rather than projects that mitigate and reduce emissions.”
— Claire Elise Thompson
Akielly Hu contributed reporting to this newsletter
- Read: more about the Montana verdict (The Guardian)
- Read: some takeaways from the proceedings of the trial (Scientific American)
- Read: about the global rise in climate lawsuits and pending cases to keep an eye on (State of the Planet)
- Read: about community-led aid efforts on Maui (Grist)
- Listen: to Grist’s Anita Hofschneider discuss the conditions that led to the Maui wildfire, and the ins and outs of the Hawaiʻi youth climate lawsuit (WBUR)
- Grist will be continuing to cover the Montana case and other climate lawsuits, as well as recovery efforts on Maui, so follow along for our daily news.
See for yourself
Our Children’s Trust has brought legal actions in all 50 states, including lawsuits and petitions — check out this list to learn about the status of their efforts in your home state (if you live in the U.S.).
A parting shot
The youth plaintiffs smiled for a group photo in front of Montana’s First District Judicial Court on June 12, ready to begin the trial. They ranged in age from 6 to 22.