Youth Activists Score a Landmark Climate Victory

Young people sued the state of Montana seeking climate justice - and won! Students learn about the new ruling and what it means going forward.

To the Teacher

On August 14, 2023, a Montana state district court issued a landmark ruling in favor of youth activists. The young people had sued Montana over the threat of climate change, charging that the state was violating their rights to a “clean and healthful environment.” 

In this lesson, students read about and discuss the ruling and consider how these lawsuits fit into a wider strategy to confront the climate crisis. 

Held v Montana plaintiffs, Our Children's Trust
Held v Montana plaintiffs. Our Children's Trust #youthvgov, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Reading One 
Youth Activists Win a Landmark Climate Lawsuit 

On August 14, a Montana state district court issued a landmark ruling in favor of youth activists who had sued the state over the threat of climate change. In their lawsuit, the young people argued that a law making it easier for fossil fuel energy projects to get government permits had violated their rights to a “clean and healthful environment” under their state constitution. Judge Kathy Seeley’s ruling came after a two-week trial that featured the testimonies of 10 climate expert witnesses, along with the personal testimonies of 11 of the Montana youth plaintiffs, ranging in age from five to 22, who detailed how the climate crisis had impacted their mental and physical health. 

The case, known as Held v. Montana, comes after years of U.S. activists trying to sue governments and fossil fuel companies alike around climate issues, but previously meeting with little success. On August 14, the Associated Press reported

A Montana judge on Monday sided with young environmental activists who said state agencies were violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment by permitting fossil fuel development without considering its effect on the climate.

The ruling following a first-of-its-kind trial in the U.S. adds to a small number of legal decisions around the world that have established a government duty to protect citizens from climate change.

District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found the policy the state uses in evaluating requests for fossil fuel permits — which does not allow agencies to evaluate the effects of greenhouse gas emissions — is unconstitutional.

Judge Seeley wrote in the ruling that "Montana's emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana's environment and harm and injury" to the youth….

Julia Olson, an attorney representing the youth, released a statement calling the ruling a "huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate."

"As fires rage in the West, fueled by fossil fuel pollution, today's ruling in Montana is 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," said Olson, the executive director of Our Children's Trust, an Oregon environmental group that has filed similar lawsuits in every state since 2011.


Held comes just a few months after the US Supreme Court denied oil corporations’ pleas to protect them from lawsuits in state and local courts. That decision prevented fossil fuel companies from shifting state lawsuits into federal courts, which have historically been more friendly to fossil fuel interests.

Montana is one of just a few states with an amendment in its state constitution that ensures a healthy environment for citizens, dubbed a “green amendment.” This amendment served as the basis for the young plaintiffs’ arguments in court. In an August 14 article for the Washington Post, climate and environment reporting intern Kate Selig provided a Q&A discussing the potential impact of the court’s ruling. She wrote:

As of 2021, Montana was the nation’s fifth-largest coal producer, and many state leaders are proud of that. But the state also has a provision in its constitution guaranteeing a right to a “clean and healthful environment,” and the young litigants argued that the state’s actions were unconstitutional….

Even before a decision was made, the case had already made history for being the first youth-led and first constitutional climate case to go to trial in the nation.

Now, experts say the ruling from Judge Kathy Seeley is one of the strongest decisions on climate change ever issued by a court — both in the United States and worldwide. Seeley determined that the litigants had standing to bring the case. She also ruled that the government played a role in harming the youths — as they had detailed in their lawsuit — because of a statute prohibiting the state from considering climate change when permitting energy projects.

The Montana case centered on a particular circumstance — a provision in the state’s constitution — but legal experts said the case could make waves beyond Montana’s borders. The experts said judges could look to Seeley’s ruling in making their own decisions, and the win for the plaintiffs could also inspire others to bring their own cases. And though only a handful of states have a constitutional provision guaranteeing a similar right to Montana’s, lawmakers in states such as Iowa, Connecticut and Maine have introduced legislation to add a “green amendment,” as they are known, to their state constitutions. Monday’s ruling could energize those efforts, experts said.


Because climate activists and oil lobbyists alike are now waiting to see if Montana’s Supreme Court will hear an appeal from the defendants, the long-term impact of the decision remains uncertain. Nevertheless, the action by young activists in Montana is inspiring others to take action—both inside and outside the courts. 

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what argument did the youth plaintiffs put forward in Held v. Montana? How did the state constitution affect their position?
  3. How might the court decision in Montana inspire those in other states? And what are some limits or difficulties that lawsuits in other states might face?
  4. The 16 plaintiffs in the Held case were all between the ages of five and 22. Could you see yourself serving as a plaintiff in a climate lawsuit? Why or why not?

Reading Two
The Road Ahead for Climate Litigation in the U.S.

The case in Montana is not the first time that young climate activists have attempted to use legal action to advance their cause. At least 14 previous suits have been filed in the United States, although they have not been successful. Nevertheless, the Washington Post reports:

there are signs the tide may be turning. Already, the nonprofit group that represented the [Montana] youths, Our Children’s Trust, has legal action pending in four other states, including a constitutional case in Hawaii that is scheduled to go to trial next year. And in June, a judge cleared a path for a 2015 case brought by the firm against the federal government, Juliana v. United States, to go to trial.


Climate litigation is also rapidly expanding internationally, “driven in part by an increase in cases brought by youths, women’s groups, local communities and Indigenous people,” Selig writes

While success in a state court is encouraging, the impact is typically not as far-reaching as victories in federal cases. In 2015, a group of 21 young Americans filed a constitutional lawsuit against the federal government, known as Juliana v. United States. They alleged that the government’s fossil-fuel-intensive policies violated their constitutional rights. The U.S. Department of Justice has since made numerous efforts to dismiss the case, although a recent ruling has put the case back on path to a trial. In a July 2023 article for Waging Nonviolence, investigative journalist Alessandra Bergamin interviewed one of the youth plaintiffs in the case, Nathan Baring, who discussed how he sees climate litigation as bolstering a larger climate movement:

[Bergamin] In both the United States and abroad, the youth climate movement has been a potent driver of climate activism through protest, lobbying and now legal action. How do you see the Juliana v. United States case not only adding to the momentum of the movement but also empowering it?

[Baring] One of the most powerful illustrations that I’ve ever heard — and which ties into our case in terms of what the arc of civil rights looks like in a movement — is the story of Brown v. Board of Education. I didn’t know until very recently that that particular legal movement started decades before the famous 1954 decision, when a group of children laid the groundwork for the case. I think that’s particularly relevant to us because not only do we continue the work of movements that came before us and allowed us to seize the moment to bring this case to court, but since the case has been filed, there have been dozens of cases filed all over the world that cite us directly.

So I think the way we fit into the climate movement is very similar to how the legal strategy of Brown v. Board of Education fit into the civil rights movement. We are one of the many legal challenges, but we do it alongside people who are in the streets, people who make art, people who teach, people who are elected to government. This is sort of our lane right now and, really, it takes every lane. 


The road ahead for climate litigation in the U.S. remains long and difficult, but the success of activists in Montana is not only a positive sign for others pursuing lawsuits, but for a movement using a variety of tactics to pursue its goals. As Baring concluded: “We aren’t going it alone. We have never gone it alone.”  

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  2. Lawsuits around climate change have been filed not only in Montana, but also in many other states, as well as in federal courts. Do you find the spread of these lawsuits hopeful—even if many past legal challenges have been unsuccessful? Explain your position.
  3. Lawsuits are one tactic that activists are using to force a stronger public response to the climate crisis. What are some other tactics that you can think of or that are mentioned in the reading? How might some of those different approaches work together? Which ones might not work well with one another?
  4. Nathan Baring, a youth plaintiff in a federal climate lawsuit, compares the strategy of the climate movement to the ways in which civil rights activists in past generations used legal action. What do you think of this comparison? Based on your knowledge of the civil rights movement, how do you think legal action, protests, and other actions contributed in that instance?
  5. Nathan Baring also says that it “takes every lane” to affect change within the climate movement. What do you think he means by this? What are different “lanes” that could work alongside each other, as well together, to affect change in the climate movement? If you were to join this movement, or another one, what lane would you prefer to work within? Why? 

–Research assistance provided by Sean Welch