This article was originally featured on High Country News.
A plain wooden clock hangs in the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena, Montana. According to the court reporter who winds it every Monday morning, it’s been there since the courthouse was built in 1887. Nine years after it was installed, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first warned that fossil fuel combustion might lead to global warming. More than a century later, the world has warmed by 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier this month, the clock gently ticked through the first youth-led climate trial in the United States: the case of Held v. Montana.
A group of 16 young people, ranging in age from 5 to 22, sued their state for having prioritized fossil fuel extraction despite decades of warnings, saying the state’s actions disregarded the Montana Constitution, which guarantees its citizens the right to a “clean and healthful environment.” The hearings concluded last week after seven days of arguments, and now the plaintiffs await the judge’s decision.
In order for plaintiffs to reach trial, they first have to prove that they have been harmed, that this harm has been caused by whoever they’re suing—and that the courts can help. In Montana, it’s enough if the judge can’t entirely resolve the harm but can, in some small way, help the plaintiffs.
After detailing the pain the plaintiffs have experienced due to climate change and the state’s role and responsibility in worsening the crisis, the plaintiffs’ attorneys set about proving that things can get better, that it’s both possible and practical to address climate change, and that the state of Montana can do so. The attorneys called on experts to explain how Montana could reform its regulatory system and remake its energy system, along with the costs and economic benefits that would result. Through hours of testimony, they built Judge Kathy Seeley a path she could put the state on to help the plaintiffs—a hopeful vision of a post-climate change world brought to life in a Helena courtroom.
On the morning of June 16, the plaintiffs’ attorneys called on Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University. Over the last 14 years, he and his team have been developing energy road maps to help all 50 states and 154 countries transition to renewable energy.
Over three hours, Jacobson laid out his numbers-rich plans for Montana. The transition plan he put together would cost $18 billion dollars up front, an investment that would be paid back through energy sales. The plan would provide an electricity grid that, Jacobson said, would be 100% reliable—one of the trickier parts of getting off fossil fuels. By 2050, the moves could save Montana just under $30 billion per year in energy, health and climate-related costs. If Montana, and every other state and country, followed his plans to transition by 2050, global CO2 levels would drop back to 350 parts per million, or ppm, by 2100. Scientists believe that is enough to stabilize the climate.
Jacobson argued that Montana’s reliance on climate-damaging extraction is motivated by perceived “sunk costs”—continuing to support fossil fuels because they’ve already invested so much in the system—as well as by bad policy. “If policies were based on economics, there would be no more fossil fuel growth in Montana or in any country,” he said. His delivery, confident and conversational, made the steps required to resolve the climate crisis seem eminently doable. “The main barrier to energy transition is that we need collective willpower,” he said. “That requires individuals, state governments and national governments to work toward this goal.”
In response, the state has argued that nothing the judge can do will help the plaintiffs; that even were the courts to side with the plaintiffs, it would not help solve climate change, as Montana contributes only a small amount of CO2 emissions compared to global emissions, and that there are no local remedies available to resolve the plaintiffs’ hurt. Furthermore, they said the plaintiffs were attempting to circumvent the Montana Legislature, where their concerns ought to be heard and where environmentalists, for over a decade, have been attempting to do so with little success.
When the final plaintiff, 18-year-old Lander Busse, testified late on Friday, he described his first deer hunt, the way the sunlight had bathed the valley, and his first elk hunt, how he watched the animals in the late afternoon as they crested a ridge. Then he described how upsetting he found it to see the patterns of the wildlife and water he loves grow unpredictable. As he testified, his mother watched, covering her mouth, tears in her eyes.
One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys then asked him, “Lander, you heard the testimony of the scientists about the current and future climate impacts on Montana’s environment. How does this make you feel?”
“I don’t know how you can sit in this courtroom and listen to everything and not have a semblance of regret and responsibility to get up and fix these things,” he responded.
“The state has one job, to look out for us. For me. And I can’t believe that this much can be put on display and yet we can still be shut down by our government. But I’m still optimistic that this may be some catalyst for change.”
Olivia Vesovich, a 20-year-old plaintiff from Missoula, testified that the act of putting the state’s process on trial had motivated her, despite her fears for the future. “I have felt so much hope through this trial, getting to listen to all the experts, all the people who care,” she said. “I have so much hope for our state. We still have time.”
Lise Van Susteren, one of the experts called to the stand on the mental health impacts of climate change, described what the plaintiffs are feeling as “pretraumatic stress.” “We are at a fork in the road, and the kids know what’s at stake,” Van Susteren, a clinical psychiatrist and co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, told the court. “On one side, we’re headed toward damage, darkness, challenges, trauma, and the emotional toll that comes with that. On the other hand, I believe that if they prevail (in this case), their lives can have the health and joy that they seek and deserve.”
When Lander finished his testimony, at the end of the day on June 16, all the plaintiffs spilled out of the courthouse into the giddy sunshine and led the way to a nearby park, followed by friends, family and supporters. They had planned a small rally, but the gathering seemed distracted. The sunlight was too bright after the dimness of the courtroom, and the world seemed almost unrecognizable. Several people spoke, including plaintiff Grace Gibson-Snyder, who cried as she thanked the community for showing up for them. Their long week was over. It’s now up to the judge to decide if there was anything she could do to address their hurt.
Exhausted, nine of the plaintiffs, in their button-downs and dresses, along with a law clerk and a lawyer, laid down in the long grass, heads together, legs stretched out, laughing.
Richard Forbes is a freelance writer, photographer and backcountry guide based in Missoula, Montana. He primarily covers stories about identity, mental health, and climate change, and holds a master’s degree in environmental journalism. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at email@example.com or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.