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Judge rules in favor of young activists in Montana climate change trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Earlier this year, a Montana court heard arguments in a first-of-its-kind climate trial. Young people alleged that the state's aggressive pursuit of fossil fuels violates Montana's constitution. Today the judge who heard that case ruled in their favor. And as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, it could have a big long-term impact on climate litigation.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The lawsuit was brought by 16 plaintiffs aged 5 to 22, and it centered on a unique part of Montana's constitution which guarantees the state's residents to a clean and healthful environment. The argument the plaintiffs made was that Montana's promotion of climate-warming fossil fuels like coal and gas violated that right. In a 103-page ruling, state Judge Kathy Seeley overwhelmingly agreed.

MICHAEL GERRARD: I thought this was one of the strongest decisions on climate change ever issued by any court anywhere.

ROTT: Michael Gerrard is the director of Columbia Law School's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

GERRARD: It was only the second time there's ever been an actual trial in a courtroom with climate scientists on the stand subject to cross-examination. And the court found for the plaintiffs in every respect.

ROTT: In particular, the judge ruled against a provision in Montana's Environmental Policy Act which prevents the state from considering the climate impacts of energy projects at all. Barbara Chilcott is a Montana-based attorney who worked on the case for the Western Environmental Law Center.

BARBARA CHILLCOTT: You know, going forward in Montana at least, we certainly will see the state being required now to actually consider climate change, which seems like a no-brainer. But it's a huge step.

ROTT: In an emailed statement, Emily Flowers, a spokeswoman for Montana's attorney general, called the ruling absurd and a taxpayer-funded publicity stunt. The state's argument has long been that Montana, a state of just over a million people, can't be blamed for changing the world's climate. The ruling dismisses that argument, though, and lays out science-based climate facts, which Gerrard and Chilcott both say could be used in future climate cases.

CHILLCOTT: Nationally, I think that a case like this is what sets the stage for the dominoes to fall - right? - and for other courts to look at this really detailed ruling from the judge in Montana and say, yeah, we've got something similar going on. And, you know, we're not charting new territory now.

ROTT: A similar lawsuit in Hawaii is set to go to trial next summer. Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.