Love of the Land and Community Inspired the Montana’s Youth Climate Change Lawsuit Against the State Goes to Court This Week
Love of the Land and Community Inspired the Montana Youths Whose Climate Lawsuit Against the State Goes to Court This Week, Inside Climate News, Richard Forbes.
For the plaintiffs in the first youth climate lawsuit to go to trial, finding their voice and inspiring others has been as much a salve for their climate grief as bringing their case to trial.
Rikki Held headed southeast into the badlands, eyes fixed on the billowing smoke as it reddened with sunset. Rutted tracks wound between scrubby hillsides that hid the wildfire. Brush raked the car.
She’d been home at the ranch in southeastern Montana when she saw the plume. The land was parched, a dull red gravel road, sun beaten grasses, clustered trees lining the river, all within a one-mile-wide strip of irrigated land surrounded by rolling badlands. There was a haze in the air, but nothing like the smoky skies of previous summers.
Rikki called her father as soon as she saw the smudge on the horizon.
“Dad, did you see the smoke when you drove to town?” she asked.
“No, where’s it coming from?” he responded.
To find the answer, Rikki drove through the hills her family has ranched for five generations. This is where she learned to love living in the middle of nowhere.
It was August 20th, 2022. There were 25 fires within 50 miles of her home that summer—2,000 were recorded across Montana.
Spurred by the ever-increasing number of fires and other impacts of global warming on the state, Rikki and 15 other young people are suing the state of Montana for failing to protect them against climate change.
The first of the lawsuits brought by young people in the United States to go to court, their lawsuit hinges on Montana’s Constitution, which guarantees its citizens the right to a clean and healthful environment. Rikki and the other plaintiffs claim that Montana’s state energy policy (which was recently repealed, likely due to the lawsuit) and the state’s methods of environmental review are unconstitutional. The state, they claim, by prioritizing the extraction and use of fossil fuels despite the warnings of decades of science, is breaking its own laws. And to many observers, the Montana legislature’s actions in the lead-up to the trial show that the state is taking the plaintiffs’ suit seriously.
Over the last decade, youth-led legal actions relating to climate change have been filed in every American state. While Juliana v. U.S. is the best known, Held v. Montana, named after Rikki, was the first allowed to go to trial when its proceedings began this week.
Rikki and the other plaintiffs will appear in a courtroom in Helena before the First Judicial District Court. There will be no jury because judges decide constitutional issues. The lawsuit has stretched out three years already. Rikki, the oldest of the plaintiffs, was 18 when it began. She graduated from college last month.
Rikki was likely chosen to be lead plaintiff because her story is good, and she knows it. She’s a fifth-generation rancher in Powder River County, one of the most conservative counties in the state. Forty-seven percent of Powder River County residents believe that climate change is caused by humans, 10 percent less than the national average and 5 percent less than the rest of the state, according to Yale’s 2021 Climate Opinion survey.
Despite the area’s skepticism about humans causing climate change, wildfires and floods increasingly threaten the family’s 7,000 acres, which lie 20 miles outside Broadus, population 450. In many ways, Rikki is what everyone imagines a Montanan to be. She started riding horses and moving cattle when she was 4. But she’s also a recent college graduate, trying to understand her place in the world.
Rikki believes that if she shares her story effectively, she could change Montana’s energy policy, and through this, maybe the world. But it would come at a cost that she is already paying. Rikki’s story belongs to the case now. It’s her name on the lawsuit and her identity as a young rancher that helps keep the case from looking partisan. Her fears are the injuries around which the case was built. Now Judge Kathy Seeley will decide if her story is enough to give her the future she wants.
The case is also a gift. While Rikki has watched friends worry about not doing enough, she and the other plaintiffs already have a platform. When they want to be heard, they agree to an interview and soon they’ll see their names in print. They’ve already achieved their goal of making it to court. And if they win this case, maybe they’ll help change the American climate discourse, or at the very least, keep some carbon in the ground.
There are over 250,000 young people under the age of 20 living in Montana—more than a fifth of all state residents. The sixteen young plaintiffs in this lawsuit see themselves as representing the fears and anxieties of a generation.
Rikki and almost 70 percent of young adults globally are deeply concerned about climate change, according to a 2021 study published in the Lancet. They know that global warming is largely responsible for the record-breaking natural disasters unfolding year after year. They are told by some news outlets and adults in their lives that humanity is out of time to stop its worst impacts. Even if it’s not stated outright, young people hear that their generation must fix the crisis, and if they don’t, no one knows what will happen next, but it will be worse than anything they’ve experienced so far.
Humans have always co-existed with looming threats, but climate change is different. Nothing else has posed such an all-consuming threat to the world, nor caused such a constellation of disasters—surging wildfires, deadly heat waves, rising seas, intensifying storms, persistent drought, expanding vector-borne diseases, to name a few.
In the face of these threats, many young Montanans are frightened, angry and anxious, and are learning to use their voices to protect the homes and the state they love.
A Law Firm That Helps Youth
In 2010, Julia Olsen founded the nonprofit law firm Our Children’s Trust, based in Portland, Oregon, to help climate-concerned youth sue governments for not fulfilling their obligations to their citizens. According to Nate Bellinger, OCT’s lead attorney for the Held v. Montana suit, OCT works to identify effective legal strategies and to represent young people who want to participate as plaintiffs. They partner with local youth organizations, give presentations in schools and assemble legal teams.
OCT is currently collecting information about potential plaintiffs for an Alaska-based lawsuit, and their website asks, “Please tell us why you might be interested in joining a youth-led climate change legal action” and “How has climate change affected you, your family, your community?”
OCT conducts a rigorous onboarding process to ensure young people know what it means to be a plaintiff, understand the commitment involved and are not feeling pressured to be involved, Bellinger says. The attorneys then identify the applicants whose lives best support the lawsuit and work with them to draft a legal complaint in which the plaintiffs describe their lives and the ways climate change has and will harm them. The plaintiffs’ stories form the heart of the complaint. OCT supplies scientific and legal reasoning.
Kyler Nerison, spokesman for the Montana attorney general’s office, has said that the plaintiffs are being exploited by special interest groups. Ryan Busse, whose sons Lander, 18, and Badge, 15, are plaintiffs, scoffed at this.
“There’s nobody manipulating my two, including me. I wish we could manipulate them more when it comes to cleaning up their rooms,” he says. “If Lander and Badge didn’t know anything about [the case] and then they read [about it], they’d be climbing over the wall—how do I sign up?”
No Time to Waste
Grace Gibson-Snyder, 19, grew up with the Clark Fork River. When her mother was pregnant with Grace, she would walk the few blocks from her home to the river to swim. As a child, Grace and her parents would carry innertubes up the river, float back down and get pizza on the way home. She’s seen the river’s patterns change with the warming climate and felt the ever-worsening wildfire smoke catch in her throat every summer.
While other plaintiffs’ claims center on global warming’s physical effects on their land and ways of life, Grace describes how it harms her emotionally. She is terrified of the future, and living with that fear is hard.
“I’m fighting against something I can barely comprehend,” Grace says. “I’m spending all my time, and so much of my energy to prevent something from happening.”
Five years ago, she read that the world had eight years before climate change impacts would become irreversible. She’s living with that deadline even as she tries to make decisions about her future, like going to college.
“It doesn’t feel as if I have four years to waste,” Grace had said in the spring of 2022. “If I’m going to be part of the [climate movement], it’s on a tight timeline.”
A year later, she’d finished her first year at Yale. As a child, she dreamed of becoming a farmer like her father, or an artist. Now she plans to study energy policy.
Grace learned about climate change when she was 11 and began volunteering for environmental groups a few years later. During her sophomore year in high school, when she saw footage of Greta Thunberg asking world leaders “How dare you?” at the United Nations, Grace wept. “That was the first time I’d seen someone encapsulate the incredibly complex emotions that come with being a young person in this climate catastrophe,” she says.
A few months later, Grace learned about the climate lawsuit in her environmental club. Within six months, she was officially a plaintiff. She’s grateful to be included, but the fight has forced her to reckon with emotions most might choose to avoid.
A headline, returning wildfire smoke or a careless comment about the climate crisis, feels like a punch to the stomach, leaving her asking, “What am I doing? What are we doing?”
She can’t fix this. Her efforts seem futile. This “breathless loss of control” leaves Grace crying until she’s empty.
A cellist since she was five, Grace decided in eighth grade that she would play every day, and did so for five years. She only stopped for a gap year to work on climate and international policy. When her tears cease, she gets back to work.
She used to feel isolated in her grief, but all the plaintiffs are struggling with similar emotions, and it heartens her to be working toward a collective goal.
She’s become a de facto spokesperson for all of the plaintiffs, interviewed for over 15 stories in national news outlets. Grace sees the younger plaintiffs as providing the emotional backbone of the case, tugging at heartstrings with their innocence, while she’s the one who talks, who convinces, who represents all the young people of Montana.
After more than three years of interviews, Grace senses her relationship with her own story changing. Sometimes she feels desensitized; like she’s reading from a script in her head to keep the emotions at bay. But beneath the surface, it’s all still there—the fear and the loss. “It’s a hard little shell, and if I crack that open, it all comes right back out,” she says. “So, it’s not gone.”
“It’s infuriating,” she says, starting to cry. “My life’s work is to save your ass. It’s hard to see people disengage. Now I’m carrying your weight too.”
The fact that among those she’s trying to save are her adversaries in court presents yet another emotional dilemma.
“The attorneys for the state, the governor. The government is made up of people. And that’s who I’m trying to protect. Even if [they] don’t believe in climate change.”
Climate’s Psychological Impacts
Climate change presents a range of psychological challenges, from people’s willingness to accept it as real, to the ways it changes how they feel about the present and future. Mental healthcare professionals have begun recognizing these emotional impacts, but there’s varied guidance about how to respond.
According to a 2021 paper from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, climate change can cause psychological harm in a variety of ways. It directly stresses people with the traumatic events it causes, such as extreme weather. It worsens pre-existing mental health conditions—higher temperatures, for instance, can cause increased rates of self-harm and suicide. It can prompt ecological grief with climate-driven changes to landscapes. And climate anxiety, the persistent worry about the escalating impacts from global warming, can build to the point of being overwhelming.
All humans are experiencing each of these effects to varying degrees, the ISTSS reported, though they can be mitigated by privilege and access to resources.
Young people are specifically vulnerable to mental health issues driven by climate, says Rebecca Weston, a clinical therapist and co-president of the Climate Psychology Alliance, which supports mental healthcare providers whose clients struggle with climate change. She works with young clients and finds few who aren’t concerned about it.
“I don’t want to presume that every single youth is consciously aware that their futures are severely impacted,” she says. “But there’s a zeitgeist of dread and worry that overlays so much of young people’s experiences.”
Weston notes that anticipatory trauma can be hard to voice, but “the loss of your future, an apocalyptic future, this is a real loss. It counts.”
Dr. Caitlin Martin-Wagar, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Montana, sees similar impacts. Her clients are teenagers with eating disorders, and while she doesn’t specialize in climate-related issues, almost every client brings them up, alongside school shootings and other societal issues that make them feel powerless.
“These are large existential threats to safety and ability to thrive in this world,” Martin-Wagar says.
The inner lives of teenagers and the 18- to 22-year-olds psychologists call “emerging adults” are filled with questions, Martin-Wagar says. “How am I going to contribute to the world? How does the world impact me? How should I spend my time?” Climate change affects all these questions.
Taleah Hernandes, 19, grew up at the foot of the Mission Mountains. “I’ve lived in this area my whole life,” Taleah says. “I grew up surrounded by forests, the best of Montana.”
Her father was born in Puerto Rico. Her mother was born in Alabama and raised in Butte. They ended up in Polson, on the Flathead Reservation, because her father loved that landscape. Her whole family works in conservation, and her older half-brother, Shiloh, a lawyer, helped begin the Held v. Montana lawsuit before moving to a different law firm.
Taleah knew she wanted to be involved as soon as her brother told her about it. She became a plaintiff at 15, though at first, she thought she might not be the right person. She’d grown up watching her family working to protect Montana, but thought she had to get older to help. She feared, like Grace and Rikki, that her climate stress wasn’t dramatic enough.
But in 2022, everything changed when she first visited Puerto Rico to see her father’s family, who are Taino—Indigenous Puerto Ricans. He hadn’t been back in 25 years.
While her extended family is safe for now, her relatives’ vulnerability was impossible to ignore. Five years after Hurricane Maria, Taleah walked along beaches and saw families rebuilding homes still buried in sand.
For three years, Taleah had been content with being a plaintiff and listening when others spoke. After Puerto Rico, she wanted to share her story.
She grew up in a conservative community where conversations about climate change often felt uncomfortable. In part to help her as a plaintiff, took a course in public speaking during her freshman year at Montana State University. Now she’s beginning to give interviews, trying to engage in a conversation with and for all Montanans, even if it’s frightening.
“I’m scared to say what I think sometimes,” she says. “I don’t know how much people are paying attention and I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I’m trying to balance so many things. But I’m trying to step into the lawsuit and climate advocacy more.”
Taleah isn’t alone. Over 60 percent of Americans are worried about climate change, but only a third of Americans discuss it with family or friends, according to a 2022 report released by Yale. Rebecca Weston worries that this silence perpetuates inaccuracies both about climate change and how someone’s neighbors and friends feel.
“People care far more than they’re allowed to believe,” Weston says. “There are so many pressures not to speak about climate change, but it’s the most important thing.”
Just as yelling “fire” provokes an urgent response, she believes communities can use their voices to inspire action. Weston says people are often slow to turn speech to action because they, like many of the plaintiffs in Held v. Montana, don’t think they have been hurt enough by climate change to have a voice.
That others may have it worse is part of what Weston sees as an ongoing conversation of privilege, but this does not mean that the privileged need to stay silent about the ways they’re affected.
“When others speak, it affects what you think is possible,” Weston says. “It literally changes your entire way of being in the world.”
A Student Finds His Voice and a Teacher Finds a Mission
Isaiah Hudson, one of the young Montanans represented in Held v. Montana, is a 14-year-old high school student in Missoula who learned about climate change years ago but never thought he could help. The worsening wildfires inspired him to try.
In January 2023, he volunteered to speak alongside other young people at a climate rally in Helena. Standing in a line immediately behind 14-year-old plaintiff Mica Kantor, Isaiah heard, for the first time, about how 16 people just like himself were suing to protect their state. Mica finished by inviting the crowd to attend the Held v. Montana trial. Then it was Isaiah’s turn at the mic.
He began hesitantly reading notes written only a few hours earlier but was encouraged by applause and found his rhythm. He finished looking out at the hundreds of people and raising his voice. “Now is the moment to act,” he said. “No more waiting. No more excuses. No more pointing fingers. The time is now.”
Now that he has recognized that he has power, he has an increasing sense of responsibility.
“I’m feeling the need, more and more, to act,” he says. “And I wish that I had felt this pressure earlier.” He stops.
“It doesn’t feel good to have this pressure,” Isaiah says. “I could have done more earlier. But I’m 14.”
The Climate Change Studies program at the University of Montana helps students learning to advocate for the environment find their voices. When Peter McDonough started directing the program five years ago, he assumed he’d be teaching and advising. but two months into the job, one of his students attempted suicide. Climate change was one of the drivers of her despair.
“That sent me down a rabbit hole,” he says. “How can I put mental health awareness into everything I teach?”
He isn’t a therapist—his degrees are in civil engineering and environmental studies—but now believes it’s his role to help his students stay healthy. McDonough feels that if a student comes out of his program without strategies for coping with the existential crisis of climate change, he’s failed them.
When students enter his Introduction to Climate Change course, they’re often overwhelmed.
“Our brains aren’t built for this,” he says. “We’ve never been forced to deal with this level of uncertainty. Every generation has its struggles, but it’s never been extinction.”
He hopes not only to help his students understand climate change, but to provide opportunities to take action, not because he believes this will save the world, but because he wants them to feel supported.
“That’s my job, to remind my students that anything they choose to do in the climate space, if they do it genuinely, and with their full attention, is worthwhile,” McDonough says.
The first step for everyone “is to do the next easiest thing,” McDonough says.
It doesn’t matter what that step is, so long as it’s achievable and builds momentum for the next one.
“I Don’t Have To Solve Everything by Myself”
Before the trial began Monday, Rikki Held, who graduated weeks earlier from Colorado College, spent as much time at her family home in Montana as possible—four days.
When she is worried about the future, she imagines being back on the ranch. She walks down an overgrown dirt road lined by sagebrush before dropping down to the sandy riverbank. She kicks her shoes off and sits on a fallen cottonwood smoothed by age. Her dog pants, the water rushes over rocks, a pheasant flushes from the brush. A soft breeze blows out of the west, fresh and earthy. She feels the river’s dampness on her skin.
The plaintiffs are represented by Nate Bellinger of Our Children’s Trust, Melissa Hornbein of the Western Environmental Law Center, and Roger Sullivan and Dustin Leftridge of McGarvey Law. In court, Rikki will testify before her lawyers, those defending the State of Montana and Judge Kathy Seeley. She wants everyone to see that she’s not just a story on a piece of paper but represents both the young people of Montana and the home she just left—the rivers, the buttes, the cattle, the grasslands, even the fires.
No matter how the trial ends, the lawsuit has helped her see her role in the climate story and taught her that she has a voice.
And she knows what comes next. She has a geology internship this summer, and then she’ll go to western Kenya to serve in the Peace Corps, teaching science. Then she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in hydrology, to continue trying to understand climate change and to support her community, whether that’s in Montana or on the other side of the world.
“I don’t have to solve everything by myself,” Rikki says. “Anyone can make a difference in their own way. Solving problems is part of being human and you have to get through it and try to make things better. As much as you can.”