In Montana, a landmark legal challenge over climate change

By Dana Drugmand

For 20-year-old college student Olivia Vesovich, climate change is not a future concern. It’s a current and near-daily crisis.

“Climate change has impacted my ability to breathe,” Vesovich testified from the witness stand of a Montana courtroom last week.

The college student, who suffers from asthma, is one of more than a dozen young people who have undertaken a landmark legal challenge against the state of Montana over the state’s support for industries that contribute to harmful climate change and related impacts on human health.

Smoky conditions stemming from wildfires that have been raging through the western US trigger have direct and frightening consequences, Vesovich told a packed courtroom in Helena.

“It feels like it’s suffocating me if I’m outside for too long,” Vesovich said.

Personal stories such as Vesovich’s were spotlighted over the last week in the case of Held v. Montana, which was filed by sixteen children and young adults who contend that Montana officials are turning a blind eye to climate pollution when issuing permits for fossil fuel projects, including expansion of coal mining.

The case is the first-ever constitutional climate trial in the country, pitting youth inheriting climate problems against the government leaders they blame for the dire legacy.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court declaration that the state is violating Montana’s constitution, which explicitly grants the right to a clean and healthful environment. The lawsuit targets two provisions of Montana’s energy policy, one that promotes the use of fossil fuels, and another that prevents state officials from taking into account how different projects contribute to climate change.