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Lead youth plaintiff on 'unbelievable' victory in constitutional climate case against Montana

Youth plaintiffs are cheered on by supporters as they arrive for their second day of trial (Robin Loznak)
Youth plaintiffs are cheered on by supporters as they arrive for their second day of trial (Robin Loznak)

A group of 16 youth activists just won a landmark climate lawsuitagainst the state of Montana.

Held v. Montana is the country’s first constitutional climate case. District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that Montana’s fossil fuel policies violated a provision in its constitution that guarantees “a clean and healthful environment.”

“It’s just kind of unbelievable because we’ve been working on this for so long,” says 22-year-old Rikki Held, the only plaintiff of legal age at the time of filing the lawsuit. “It happens to be my name, but it’s so much bigger than myself and even us involved in the case because this matters for the whole world, even outside of Montana’s borders.”

Youth plaintiff Rikki Held in court next to Nate Bellinger, senior staff sttorney with Our Children’s Trust (Robin Loznak)

Held grew up in Montana on her family’s ranch. She detailed the effects of climate change she’s witnessed firsthand, from extreme weather to flooding to wildfires that produce smoke dangerous to humans and livestock alike.

Montana’s Attorney General will appeal the decision, which could end up before the state’s Supreme Court. But Nate Bellinger, senior staff attorney at Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit behind the lawsuit, says it provides crucial precedent.

“There were other constitutional claims at issue in the case, including the plaintiff’s right to equal protection of the law, to individual dignity, to liberty, to health and safety,” says Bellinger. “The judge found that those other constitutional rights were also being infringed. So all of these constitutional rights are found in other constitutions as well.”

Moving forward, this win means that when Montana evaluates permit requests from the fossil fuel industry, lawmakers must consider climate change. If they don’t, the state could end up back in court.

Our Children’s Trust has legal proceedings in all 50 states, including in Hawaii, where youth are suing the state’s Department of Transportation amid deadly wildfires, which were likely worsened by the planet’s warming.

Generation Z bears the brunt of decades of climate change and is seeing the effects. And many members are fighting back

“I just have a lot of hope for the future,” Held says. “With decisions like this and all of the other court cases coming, there’s going to be a change. It’s just a matter of time now.”


James Perkins Mastromarino and produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Perkins Mastromarino adapted it for the web with Grace Griffin.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.