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Published 18 agosto 2023
The judgment in Held v Montana, handed down on 14 August, ruled in favour of the youth activists, representing a landmark outcome in climate change litigation.
The action, brought by sixteen youths in Montana against the state government, is notable as the first climate action to proceed to trial in the United States considering constitutional rights, and the constitutionality of existing state legislation in allegedly denying those same rights.
The judgment represents the first time a court in the United States has ruled on the merits of, and in favour of, a claim alleging state or federal violations of constitutional rights relating to climate change. The judgment not only found that Montana state legislation was unconstitutional, but significantly, the court made various factual findings declaring the natural world is rapidly changing due to climate change with direct impacts on the youth activists.
Held is one of an increasing number of climate actions that allege failures on the part of state or national governments to tackle climate change have violated constitutional fundamental freedoms and human rights, and signifies the latest evolution of rights based climate actions.
Held was identified as a significant case in our recently published interactive map of 20 key active climate change actions.
Sixteen Montana youths aged between five and 22 (the "Plaintiffs") filed an action against the State of Montana challenging the constitutionality of the State's fossil-fuel based energy system, alleging that this breached their rights, including the right to a 'clean and healthful environment' as set out in the Montana Constitution.
One of the State policies the Plaintiffs targeted was a provision in The Montana Environmental Policy Act ("MEPA") which contains a limitation (the "MEPA Limitation") that prevents the State from considering the impacts of greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions or climate change in environmental reviews of its energy economy. Since the claim was commenced, clarifications to the MEPA Limitation were signed into law in April 2023, further explicitly prohibiting "an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate in the state or beyond the state's borders" for MEPA reviews of new energy projects.
Handing down judgment, District Court Judge Seeley made various findings of fact, including that:
It was held that the Plaintiffs had standing to bring the action, as they have a "fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as a part of the environmental life-support system."
Montana's GHG emissions and climate change were found to be proven factors in causing climate impacts to Montana's environment and harm and injury to the Plaintiffs. Montana's GHG emissions could be fairly traceable to the MEPA Limitation.
By prohibiting analysis of GHG emissions and corresponding impacts to the climate of energy projects, as well as how additional emissions will contribute to climate change or be consistent with the Montana Constitution, the MEPA Limitation violates the Plaintiffs' right to a clean and healthful environment and is unconstitutional.
The Court ordered that the recent amendment to the MEPA Limitation was unconstitutional, and injunctive relief was appropriate. The state government and public bodies are therefore prohibited in acting in accordance with those statutes which are unconstitutional.
The State of Montana has 60 days to appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, which they will almost certainly do.
A precursor of things to come?
Held is one of a number of similar actions by groups of citizens in various countries across the globe attempting to hold governments accountable on climate action. Record temperatures worldwide and the recent wildfires in Greece, Canada and Hawaii, all identified as a consequence of a changing climate, mean these and similar actions are likely to gather momentum in the near future.
There is widespread interest in the case of Juliana v United States as the first federal constitutional complaint considering climate change to potentially go to trial. The action alleges harm to the plaintiffs rights to life, liberty and property by continuing use of fossil fuels across the US. In June 2023, permission was granted in Oregon confirming the claim would proceed to trial. However, the United States Department of Justice continue to file motions to stay the litigation. Consequently, we expect further delays in this claim being heard.
In the European Court of Human Rights, the claims of Verein Klima Seniorinnen v Switzerland, identified in our climate change map, and Careme v France, were heard in March 2023. Those claims allege inadequate action on behalf of public authorities in the respective countries amounting to a violation of Convention rights. A third action, Duarte Agostinho and others v Portugal and 32 states is due to be heard in September 2023, alleging that signatories to the Paris Agreement have failed to comply with their commitments.
These decisions will be awaited with great interest. Although the European Convention of Human Rights does not enshrine any specific right to a healthy environment, the Court acknowledges it has been called upon to consider environmental matters which may prevent the exercise of existing Convention rights. The Duarte Agostinho claim will also consider the issue of extra-territorial jurisdiction for climate harm. These actions represent a major opportunity for the ECHR to offer guidance and identify its position on climate change related human rights claims.
In terms of possible wider consequences, if successful, these rights based climate actions have the potential to drive changes in state and national legislation around protection of the climate and natural environment, making it easier for citizens and activist groups to target big GHG emitting corporates.
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