Montana Court Upholds Right to Clean and Healthful Environment.

Growing up, I was exposed to a great deal of U.S. patriotism, in the form of songs, fictionalized propaganda like Little House on the Prairie, and Fourth of July parades. After 9/11, it all became much more about the US armed forces (which is actually very appropriate, given US history), but what sticks with me is the focus on the landscape. The landscape was a revelation for the Europeans who created the United States, despite the fact that they murdered the people who had shaped and maintained that landscape, and set about trying to turn it into a version of the European terrain they’d left behind by clear-cutting, straightening rivers, building cities and monoculture farms, and wiping out species they viewed as bad. Still, much of the landscape remains beautiful, and a lot of American pride remains tied to that beauty. It’s not surprising, then, that the state constitution of Montana, home of Yellowstone National Park (along with Idaho and Wyoming) guarantees a right to a “clean and healthful environment”. The only problem is that, as with democracy, this noble principle is incompatible with capitalism, so oil companies have largely had their way.

Until now.

In Held v. State of Montana, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley ruled that rights of the plaintiffs—who range in age from 5 to 22— have been violated by the Montana Environmental Policy Act because the law has prevented the state from assessing the climate impacts of mining projects.

Fossil fuel emissions including Montana’s “have been proven to be a substantial factor” in heating the planet and causing pollution, Seeley said in the nation’s first ruling on a constitutional, youth-led lawsuit regarding the climate.

Because the Montana Constitution guarantees residents a “clean and healthful environment,” the state’s environmental policy law violates the document, said Seeley.

“This is HUGE,” said meteorologist Eric Holthaus.

It is huge. The cynical part of me says I’ll believe it when I see real change from it, but this is absolutely a win, not just because of changes to policy in Montana because of it, but because this lawsuit is far from alone, and this ruling sets a precedent that will be very helpful going forward:

As Common Dreams reported last month, lawsuits around the world have emerged as a key driver of climate action as a wide range of plaintiffs—from children in the U.S. to senior citizens in Switzerland—have argued that their human rights have been violated by the companies and lawmakers that have promoted fossil fuel production despite scientific evidence of the danger it poses.

Out of approximately 2,200 worldwide climate cases, about three-quarters have been filed in the United States, according to the United Nations Environment Program and the Sabin Center, and the number of legal challenges has more than doubled since 2017.

The outcome of the Montana case could “open up the floodgates for more climate lawsuits,” said Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media.

I talk a lot about the ways in which our government and “justice” system are corrupt and illegitimate, but there is no questioning their power, and there are many within those institutions who take them seriously. I think it’ll be some time before we can actually see the material effects of this ruling, but it seems like this isn’t just going to go away.

This is also one reason why it’s better to have the corrupt, illegitimate system we know, than the corrupt, illegitimate system that the fascists running the GOP intend to create, if they manage to finish destroying the laws and institutions that protect what democracy we do have, and that protect the working classes from absolute rule by capitalists. Workplace and community organizing remain essential, but it’s a very good thing that people are fighting for change in the courts, as well. In my more cynical moments, I tend to view court cases and electoral campaigns as the things we have to do to demonstrate the need for action outside the official channels. It’s nice to have a reminder that it really is fighting this battle on all fronts, because there is victory to be found.


  1. says

    I wrote about this from another perspective. One thing more relevant to your post than mine is that Wyoming has literally NEVER EVER NOT ONCE rejected a permit application for fossil fuel extraction or pipeline projects.


    The details of the court victory are nice, but the ruling won’t directly change that. We’ll need more lawsuits in the future if we are ever to see Wyoming turn down the polluters.

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