CCLers contribute to historic Held v. Montana climate case

A grid of eight individual photos of children of different ages

Some of the youth plaintiffs in Held v. Montana, who range in age from 5 to 22

CCLers contribute to historic Held v. Montana climate case

By Flannery Winchester

Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s advocacy typically focuses on the legislature, but other branches of government can make a big impact on climate action, too. This week, it’s the judiciary making positive strides — and CCLers played an important role.

News broke on Monday that a Montana judge ruled favorably in a historic climate-focused court case called Held v. Montana. A little background on this case: Montana’s constitution says its citizens have a right to a “clean and healthful environment.” So in 2020, supported by Our Children’s Trust, 16 young Montanans filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana arguing that “by supporting a fossil fuel-driven energy system, which is contributing to the climate crisis, Montana is violating their constitutional rights.”

Earlier this summer, in mid-June, climate experts and the youth plaintiffs made their case. And this week, the judge ruled in their favor.

The judge’s decision points out, “The State authorizes fossil fuel activities without analyzing GHGs [greenhouse gases] or climate impacts, which result in GHG emissions in Montana and abroad that have caused and continue to exacerbate anthropogenic climate change.” The decision is also crystal clear that “every additional ton of GHG emissions exacerbates Plaintiffs’ injuries and risks locking in irreversible climate injuries.” 

Reporting in the Washington Post says, “The win, experts say, could energize the environmental movement and reshape climate litigation across the country, ushering in a wave of cases aimed at advancing action on climate change.”

CCLers help make the case

Dr. Lori Byron and Dr. Rob Byron

Dr. Lori Byron and Dr. Rob Byron

Montana CCL volunteer Dr. Lori Byron is a pediatrician. Her husband, Dr. Rob Byron, is an internist. Together, along with Lisa DelBuono, Lori and Rob co-lead CCL’s Health Action Team, working to build support for climate action from local and national medical and health-related organizations.

In addition to their advocacy through CCL, they serve as Chair and Vice Chair of Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, a group made up of health professionals of all types — physicians, nurses, clinical and non-clinical staff alike. They are also both authors on the Climate Change and Human Health report in Montana, and they give health-related climate talks all around the state.

Presumably thanks to all of that advocacy work, Our Children’s Trust found Lori and Rob’s names. Our Children’s Trust reached out to them, asking if they would lend their professional expertise as witnesses.

Lori had testified for other health-related court cases in the past, but never before on the connection between climate change and health. “This was pretty new territory for both of us,” she said — but of course, they both said yes.

In preparation, Lori says, “We met half a dozen of the kids and interviewed them in relationship to our testimony. Meeting the kids and their families was really cool.”

Climate’s day in court

This was a “bench trial” before a judge, so there was no jury. Still, the room was packed with supporters, including a number of CCL volunteers from Montana.

“It was really exciting,” Lori says. “There were so many climate advocates from across Montana. They were there in force, cheering the kids on. It was really emotional.”

Rob adds, “It was just phenomenal to watch how much care the Our Children’s Trust staff took with the kids. There was this really tight-knit camaraderie between them all, and there was a huge amount of support.”

The plaintiffs built their case by weaving together expert testimony and the firsthand accounts of the youth, alternating them on the stand. “It was scripted like a story,” Lori remembers. “One of the kids talked about how devastating it was to lose glaciers. Then they had a glaciologist come on right after him.”

It was “very well done, but very emotional,” Rob agrees.

Lori’s own testimony came early in the lineup. “My primary expert opinions are that climate change and the air pollution has and are negatively affecting children in Montana, including these 16 youth Plaintiffs, with a strong likelihood that those impacts will worsen in the absence of aggressive actions to mitigate climate change,” Lori said. 

“Much the same as it behooves a smoker to quit using tobacco long before developing lung cancer, so too, the State of Montana must take all steps possible to mitigate climate change before it reaches a stage beyond which interventions are futile,” she said. “Reducing fossil fuel production and use and mitigating climate change now will have immediate benefits to the health of the Youth Plaintiffs now and for the rest of their lives.”

She went on to testify thoroughly about how air pollution, heat, extreme weather events and other climate impacts affect children in distinct ways.

Lori concluded her testimony by underscoring that climate change is already harming the plaintiffs’ health and the health of all Montana’s children, and that  “action taken by Montana’s government to prevent further contributions to climate change will have significant health benefits for the Youth Plaintiffs.”

‘More rulings like this will certainly come’

Julia Olson, Chief Legal Counsel and Executive Director for Our Children’s Trust, calls the judge’s ruling “a game-changer that marks a turning point in this generation’s efforts to save the planet from the devastating effects of human-caused climate chaos. More rulings like this will certainly come.”

Lori is hopeful about that, too. “I hope we see all kinds of lawsuits from all different angles. Hopefully enough of these lawsuits will be enough to make a big difference. I think it’s one more tool in the toolbox of all the things we do related to climate advocacy.”

Even beyond court cases, Rob encourages others in the health care field to get involved in the broader fight for climate action. “We really need more health professionals speaking up. A lot are, but not nearly as many as should be. We need them to get out of the exam room.”

If you’re a health care professional or want to get involved in outreach to the health care sector, check out CCL’s Health Action Team.

Follow Our Children’s Trust on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, or keep an eye on their website to follow along with other cases.