February 25, 2022 | NEWS | By Lily Weaver | Photo by Rikki Held

The first youth climate trial in U.S. history is set to take place between Feb. 6-17 of 2023. On March 13, 2020, 16 people from Montana, ranging in ages 4 to 20, filed their constitutional climate lawsuit against the state. Colorado College’s Rikki Held ’23 is at the forefront.

The plaintiffs declared that the state violates its constitution, in which Article IX, added in 1972, reads, “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

Montana is one of only six states that mention environmental rights in its constitution. The plaintiffs argued that the state of Montana violates this constitutional declaration by “supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system, which is contributing to the climate crisis.”

Montana is also in violation of its constitutional right to “seek safety, health, and happiness; and to individual dignity and equal protection of the law.” The plaintiffs also argue that the “state’s fossil fuel energy system is degrading and depleting Montana’s constitutionally protected public trust resources, including the atmosphere, rivers, and lakes, and fish and wildlife.”

The youth plaintiffs are directly affected by the environmental impact of Montana’s fossil fuel energy system. Not only are they advocating for themselves, but they are advocating and creating legal precedent for those who will encounter environmental injustice in the future.

Held is the only named plaintiff in Held v. Montana.

“Growing up on a ranch in Montana, I was always interested in the environment, and this interest grew when I worked with hydrologists near my ranch and learned more about climate change and its implications in high school,” Held said. “Being involved in this case was my first real step in climate activism or environmental justice, which has continued in college.”

The complaint expressed in the lawsuit states, “children are uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis, which harms Youth Plaintiffs’ physical and psychological health and safety, interferes with family and cultural foundations and integrity, and causes economic deprivations.”

“In this case, 16 youth plaintiffs are fighting the state of Montana for our constitutional rights because our state supports a fossil fuel-driven energy system, which contributes to climate change. Although Our Children’s Trust also has legal actions globally, nationally, and in other states, Montana’s constitution is unique because it includes the right to a clean and healthful environment,” Held said.

Photo by Rikki Held

“To hold our government accountable for their actions contributing to climate change, we share how we are harmed by climate change and the state’s actions,” Held said. “It is important to remember that climate change is not an abstract problem on the other side of the world and that its effects, such as drought and wildfires, are here affecting people in places like Colorado and Montana.”

Young people are vital to Held v. Montana. Held explained how she thinks youths view climate change issues through a different lens than older people.

“A major part of this case is that youth plaintiffs lead it. Normally people have a say in our governments’ actions through voting, but because youth can’t vote, they are forced to seek protection from our courts,” Held said. “As the oldest plaintiff who was 18 when we filed, I am lucky I have a say in our governments, but young people and future generations don’t have a voice and are disproportionately affected by climate change. Youth today can’t wait for the next generation to solve these issues.”

Issues of climate change, reflected in this lawsuit, are more pressing now than they ever have been. For example, according to NBC last year, every county in Montana experienced some level of drought, and the state had a particularly active year for wildfires. Fires burned the fifth-largest amount of acreage since 1980.

“[The fires] played a big role in my family and our businesses,” Held said. “The roads were closed … August was our peak season … with hunting season. And we lost, like, half our revenue, just because of road closures.”

Not only did the fires affect Held’s family’s ranch and business, but they also directly impacted her health. She experienced headaches from the smoke and heat exhaustion while working outside on her family’s ranch.

“It’s really real and frightening. It’s kind of frustrating that we’re not doing as much as we should,” said Held.

As the trial date approaches, Held is hopeful.

“Of course I worry about our case not doing well, but I am excited that our voices are being heard and even this case going to trial as the first youth-led climate trial in U.S. history is a step in the right direction,” she said. “This case represents an unprecedented opportunity to have a court review all the scientific evidence and issue legally binding findings of fact and conclusion of law. Already, Montana has denied that fossil fuels and human behavior caused climate change and that climate change is impacting Montana’s environment and youth like me.”

Held is hopeful she will find success, and that “the court will order Montana to develop and implement a science-based Climate Recovery Plan using available science that would change the future of Montana’s energy system.”

Overall, Held’s optimism far outweighs her concerns surrounding the lawsuit.

“Vot[e] and support people who are making a difference,” said Held. “Climate change is a complex issue that can be approached through many avenues such as science, social justice, agriculture, art, and communication, and diverse perspectives and stories are also needed.”

Climate change issues cannot be put on the back burner; they must be addressed immediately. Even though the impact of these issues may not be visible in the eyes of some, they directly impact an enormous number of people globally, locally — even at CC — and they can no longer be ignored.

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