At the conclusion of his testimony and the end of the youth plaintiffs’ week-long presentation of personal stories backed by scientific evidence, 18-year-old Lander Busse spoke directly to Montana’s state government, with assistant attorneys general sitting in the courtroom at the defense side of the table.
“I don’t know how you can sit in this courtroom at all and listen to these experts, and not just the evidence but the pleas that they have. Dr. [Jack] Stanford and Dr. [Steven] Running remarked on how they’ve never seen such language in reports such as these for the direness of the situation.”
“The state has one job,” Busse continued, “to look out for us, for me. And I can’t really believe that this much can be put on display in a court of law and still we can be so vigorously shut down by government that doesn’t respect our right to the legal process – we’ve been almost shut down from getting into court eight times, whether that be through the court itself or through the Supreme Court trying to get our case dismissed. The state government did not even want us to have our day in court. Let alone for the facts to be presented for how detrimental this is for everyone in the state. It’s just another clear example of the government putting profits before the people that it’s supposed to serve, and it’s so frustrating and disappointing to see it on such a wide and systematic level as we’ve seen in the last few days.”
His testimony on Friday, June 16 wrapped up the plaintiffs’ side in the historic climate trial for the landmark case Held v. State of Montana. Filed in March 2020 by sixteen young Montanans against their state government, it is the first youth-led climate lawsuit in the United States ever to reach the trial stage. The case targets the state for continuing to promote and permit fossil fuel development while requiring that state agencies turn a blind eye to the climate pollution and climate change impacts of development projects. If successful, it could set a powerful example of a court declaring government conduct favoring fossil fuels – in this case passage of a law banning consideration of climate change under the Montana Environmental Policy Act – to be unconstitutional.
“I’m still optimistic that this may be some catalyst for change,” Busse said from the witness stand.
The plaintiff and recent high school graduate from Kalispell told his story of growing up hunting and fishing with his family. “Some of my earliest memories are in the Montana wilderness with my dad,” he said, as he recalled his first elk hunt. In recent years, however, the increasingly severe wildfire smoke has dampened his time spent outdoors hunting Montana game and fishing on the state’s splendid rivers. And he doesn’t just do these activities for fun. His family relies on what they catch or kill for most of their food as they refrain from buying store-bought meat.
Besides the smoke, Busse recalled an experience where a burning wildfire came close enough to his home that he and his family had to prepare to evacuate. His brother Badge, also a plaintiff in the case, told the court earlier in the week that this was probably “one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.” Lander described it as a “really weird and frantic experience for my family.” Wildfires are becoming more intense and burning for longer periods as anthropogenic climate change gives rise to warmer and drier ‘fire danger’ conditions.
The smoke pollution associated with these fires has become a common part of Montana’s environment especially in the late summer and early fall. Many in the state refer to the smoke as a “fifth season”, Lander Busse said.
For plaintiff Olivia Vesovich, a 20-year-old from Missoula, just being outside during smoky conditions can trigger her asthma. “I feel like I can’t breathe,” she said from the witness stand, describing what she has experienced. In addition to asthma, she said she has severe spring allergies, which have been getting worse in recent years. She described the painful experience of her eyes swelling shut.
Vesovich told the court that climate change is not just harming her physical health. “I absolutely believe that climate change is impacting my mental health,” she said. She described the psychological burden and stress she experiences knowing that the climate crisis is going to get worse, and she said she thinks it would not be morally right to bring a child of her own into such a broken world. “Knowing that I won’t get to start a family of my own breaks my heart, it really does,” she said.
The psychological toll that climate change is having on young people like Olivia is very real and is likely to get worse absent urgent action by governments to tackle the climate crisis, Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a licensed psychiatrist and leading expert in the area of climate and mental health, told the court during her expert testimony. She explained that professionals in her field have a term that refers to when governments let young people down in their decisions – institutional betrayal.
“Instead of protecting them, they’re increasing the dangers” she said of Montana’s government turning its back on its children. “There really is only one remedy, and that’s to address the root cause. It’s the promotion of fossil fuels and the rulings within the state that expressly prohibit consideration of climate impacts,” Dr. Van Susteren said. The court’s decision in this case will have a “determinative” impact on the youth plaintiffs’ mental health, she concluded.
Mark Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University and one of the world’s foremost experts on renewable energy and the energy transition, provided testimony explaining that Montana could transition off of fossil fuels and achieve 100 percent clean energy across all sectors by 2050. Such a move would not only reduce overall energy consumed, but would save Montanans money and reduce air pollution and climate-related health risks. And concerns over electric grid reliability are not really valid as he said an energy system powered by renewables would be more reliable than the incumbent fossil fuel system. Montana has one of the best wind power resources of any state in the nation, and the state already generates more than a third of its electricity from hydropower.
Jacobson said the transition to clean energy will happen naturally just based on the economics, but the key when it comes to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and reversing climate destabilization is to accelerate the transition, which “requires aggressive policies to be put in place.”
Montana under the Republican-controlled state government is actively hindering this energy transition, recently enacting legislation favorable to fossil fuels and “outright hostile” to clean energy, Anne Hedges, director of policy and legislative affairs at Montana Environmental Information Center, told the court on Thursday.
Starting Monday, June 19, the state will present its defense. It is expected to call officials from defendant state agencies like the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to testify. Judith Curry, a climatologist who has shifted into the climate denial camp over the past decade, was scheduled to testify as an expert witness for the state, but state attorneys informed the court on Friday that she will not be called in to testify.