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Montana Court’s Historic Decision Recognizing State’s Responsibility to Protect Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment

Montana Court’s Historic Decision Recognizing State’s Responsibility to Protect Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment

Topic: Environment
Adhil Adhil
International Justice Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defence.


On August 14, 2023, a judge in Montana District Court pronounced a landmark decision affirming the constitutional right to safe climate, in a lawsuit Held v. Montana. [1] This lawsuit became the U.S first constitutional climate change trial, declaring that the young climate activist (plaintiff) has a constitutional right to clean and healthy environment, and revoked two Montana statutes that barred state agencies from considering greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts while conducting environmental reviews of a project. This 2011 amendment to the Montana Environmental Policy Act, enabled fossil fuel companies to secure gas and oil projects, without any analysis of climate change impacts or greenhouse gas emissions.[2]The decision, first of its kind in the U.S legal system, where the Court had a strike down legislation on the government’s violation of the constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment. 


Legal issues and Arguments in Held v. Montana  

Montana is a handful of states in the U.S.A, which explicitly contains the constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment explicitly recognized in the constitution. [3] On March 13, 2020, sixteen Montana youth and children filed a lawsuit challenging Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) pertaining to forbidding state agency to conduct evaluation of the greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts while  environmental review of the projects; and also the provision limiting who can challenge the agency final decision on environmental review, and require challengers to pay a bond, before challenging the decision

There were multiple legal issues arose in this case including, (i) legal standing of 16 youth represented by the climate group ‘Our Children’s Trust’; (ii) the climate change and its specific harm on the children and youth plaintiffs, (iii) the harmful consequence of Climate Change on Montana’s environment; and (iv) finally the legal validity of MEPA provisions and limitation for violating the constitutional right to clean and healthy environment. [4]

In the decision, Montana District Court concluded that 16 youth plaintiffs have suffered past and ongoing injuries related to State’s failure to consider climate change impacts on the plaintiff’s right to a clean and healthy environment. [5] During the trial, the court heard expert testimonies from climate scientists, glaciologists and policy experts to analyze the scientific evidence on climate change, and the court concluded that there is indisputable evidence that Montana’s promotion and permitting of fossil fuels industry contributes to climate change through emission of greenhouse gas emissions [6] During the hearing, the State of Montana repeatedly asserted the economic implication of limiting fossil fuels, and its negative impact on energy consumption, electricity and economy at large. But the court rejected such arguments based on expert testimony of Mark Jacobson, a professor from Stanford, who argued that there are alternative means to secure the non-fossil fuel energy system from natural energy sources.[7] 

Finally, the MEPA provision that forbids the state agencies from reviewing the greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts, while conducting environmental review of a project was struck down as unlawful and unconstitutional, as the provision violates the plaintiff’s constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment.[8] But, the court didn’t decide on permissible rates of greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with the constitutional right of plaintiff, or where the line has to be drawn, as such policy and technical questions were left to the legislative discretion of the elected officials of the Montana State. Also, the court denied the plaintiff’s plea to prohibit the extraction of fossil fuel or burned with the state, but nevertheless, the decision is considered as a one of major victories for ongoing legal movement of climate litigation against the disastrous government policies that exacerbates the existing climate emergency.


Takeaways and Implication of the Held v. Montana

This decision undoubtedly would have a far-fetching impact in defining the State’s responsibility for climate change in both U.S law and international law. [9] For the first time, a U.S court has struck down a legislation based on the constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment, and this decision paves a blueprint of the legal strategies and arguments to support climate litigations and trials undergoing in various states in the U.S, including a federal case in Oregon. [10] Firstly, the decision could legitimize the use of scientific decision and expert opinion in deciding the harms of climate change in a particular context. Secondly, the U.S court has been refusing to adjudicate environmental cases related to climate change on procedural grounds such as ‘lack of a legal standing of the plaintiffs’ for a very long period. However, this decision broke that legal stalemate, and concluded that individuals harmed by climate change have a legitimate legal standing to file a lawsuit challenging the State’s failure to protect their constitutional right to a healthy and clean environment. Thirdly, the decision has contributed to defining the legal measurement of causation of climate change in harming the health and safety of Montana’s youth and individuals, which could become a precedent for other similar cases. [11]  Finally, though the decision was limited to analyzing the Montana’ state responsibility for climate change and harms caused to people residing in Montana, the decision could have a far-fetching impact in influencing international law and constitutional cases in other common law countries. 

There are already many constitutional litigations initiated in other common law and constitutional countries, and a decision if approved by Montana Supreme Court, could become a precedent, or at least a guiding case for legal strategies to protect clean and healthy environment from climate change. But at the same time, there are significant limitations of the decision, primarily there is a likelihood that the decision could be reversed by appeal court or Montana Supreme Court. Also, there are presently only three U.S States, i.e Pennsylvania, Montana, and Massachusetts have recognized a right to healthy environment in their constitutions, and decisions could only be cited in those specific states only. But, there are efforts in other states such as Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Washington, and West Virginia to amend and include such a right in their State constitutions.  [12]

Citations and Sources 

  1. Dharna Noor, Montana’s landmark climate ruling: three key takeaways, (GUARDIAN, 20 Aug 2023)

  2. Sarah Kuta, Montana Youths Win Key Climate Lawsuit on Their Right to a ‘Clean and Healthful Environment, (SMITHSONIAN, 15 Aug 2023),

  3. Leslie Clark, 5 takeaways from the Montana Climate Trial as We Await a Historic Ruling (SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, June 23, 2023)

  4. Rikki Held v. State of  Montana, CDV 2022-307, Montana First Judicial District (2023),

  5. Ibid

  6. Judge Rules in Favor of Youth Plaintiffs in Montana Climate Lawsuit, (Montana Climate Change Lawsuit, August 14, 2023)

  7. Michael Drew, Flathead Beacon, and Amanda Eggert, ‘This changes everything’: Experts respond to Held v. Montana climate ruling, (MONTANA FREE PRESS, 17 Aug 2023)

  8. Supra note 4, Rikki Held 

  9. Michael Bruger, Montana Lawsuit Confronts States’ Responsibility for Climate Change, (BRENNAN CENTER FOR JUSTICE, May 22, 2023)

  10. April Ehrlrich, Montana youth climate lawsuit could benefit federal case in Oregon, though not directly, (OPB, 20 Aug 2023)

  11. Akielly Hu, A climate lawsuit won big in Montana. What will it mean for other cases?, (GRIST, Aug 18, 2023)

  12. Corinee Bell, Every State Should Have a Right to a Healthy Environment, (NRDC, March 29, 2021),


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