Montana appeals landmark climate change ruling that favored young plaintiffs

Teens and young adults sit and listen in court.
Plaintiffs in a climate lawsuit brought by teens and young adults in Montana listen to arguments during a May 12 court hearing in Helena.
(Thom Bridge / Independent Record via AP)
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The office of Montana’s Republican attorney general is appealing a landmark climate change ruling that said state agencies aren’t doing enough to protect 16 young plaintiffs from harm caused by global warming.

The state filed notice on Friday that it is going to appeal the August ruling by District Judge Kathy Seeley, who found the Montana Environmental Policy Act violates the plaintiffs’ state constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment. The 1971 law requires state agencies to consider the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects and take public input before issuing permits.

Under a change to MEPA passed by the 2023 Legislature, the state Department of Environmental Quality does not have to consider the effect of greenhouse gases when issuing permits for fossil fuel projects unless the federal government declares carbon dioxide a regulated pollutant.


The ruling adds to a small number of legal decisions around the world that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change.

Aug. 14, 2023

The plaintiffs argued they were already feeling the consequences of climate change, with smoke from worsening wildfires choking the air they breathe and drought drying rivers that sustain agriculture, fish, wildlife and recreation. The state argued that the volume of greenhouse gases released from Montana fossil fuel projects was insignificant compared with the world’s emissions.

Seeley’s ruling, which followed a first-of-its-kind trial in the U.S. in June, added to a small number of legal decisions around the world that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change. Last week in France, the European Court of Human Rights heard arguments from six young Portuguese people and their lawyers who said 32 European governments were violating their human rights by failing to address climate change.

It will likely be several months before the state of Montana files its brief laying out its appeal of Seeley’s ruling, Bowen Greenwood, clerk of the Montana Supreme Court, said Monday.

Six young activists are taking 32 European governments to court, saying failure to address climate change is a violation of their human rights.

Sept. 25, 2023

In the meantime, the state Department of Environmental Quality is asking Montana residents to weigh in on potential updates to the Montana Environmental Policy Act. The administrative rules to implement MEPA were passed in the 1980s.

“These regulations are showing their age and it’s time to hear from Montanans about what MEPA should look like today and into the future,” Chris Dorrington, director of the DEQ, said in a statement.

Montanans are being asked what changes, if any, are needed to modernize MEPA and how greenhouse gas emissions and climate change should be analyzed. At least three public hearings are scheduled this month. The DEQ is also taking public comment online through the end of the year.


The issue is being considered now, Dorrington said, in part because of the successful legal challenge by Montana youth.

“We want to start a thoughtful dialogue about greenhouse gas emissions and other topics, and we are seeking input that is balanced and driven by sound science,” he said.