A psychiatrist shares her first-hand experience with the landmark case of Held v State of Montana.
I had the extraordinary opportunity to be in the courtroom in Helena, Montana, for the presentation of the first ever constitutional lawsuit in which youths sued for the right to a clean and healthy environment, Held v State of Montana. Sixteen young individuals from Montana put forward the legal claim that the state has violated their rights, caused injury, and threated their future well-being. The judge ruled in their favor.1
This historic first case is only one of several in the pipeline (pun intended) with youth flexing their legal muscles to challenge the government. Lawsuits in other states, including Hawaii, Utah, Virginia, and Florida, are in planning stages, and Juliana v United States, which has been in the courts since 2015, has gotten the green light to proceed to trial.2
Held v State of Montana is rooted in the revised 1972 Montana Constitution, in which an explicit right to “a clean and healthful environment for the present and future” was codified. The plaintiffs claimed that the Montana government has consistently promoted the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, despite available clean energy alternatives, and is thus causing harm to these youth and worsening the climate crisis. These young individuals brought their worries, fears, and hopes to public view as they told the judge—and the world—about the ravages of climate change and how it is damaging their health, families, and hopes for the future. The complaint focuses on 2 statutes: (1) provisions of Montana’s state energy policy, which explicitly promotes the use of fossil fuels, and (2) an amendment to the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which prevents the state from considering the impacts of climate change in the permitting process.
Scholars, scientists, and policy makers, including a Nobel Peace Prize–winning climate scientist and psychiatrist, Lise Van Susteren, MD, cofounder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, testified about the anthropogenetic causes of climate disruption, climate change-induced adverse childhood experiences, and intergenerational injustices as well as the resulting psychiatric sequelae. Expert testimony presented evidence that was interspersed with testimonies from the plaintiffs, who shared how the climate crisis is affecting their lives.
The energy and enthusiasm were amazing. Each day the parade of plaintiffs accompanied by their legal team was cheered on by enthusiastic community supporters as they entered the courtroom. These young plaintiffs are a remarkable group; they are observant of what is happening in their world; they are articulate, active, and worried. They come from different parts of the state, with the youngest aged 5 years and the oldest aged 22 years. Except for the very youngest, whose parents joined for them, each plaintiff joined the case because of their direct experience with impacts of climate change on their lives and observations of what is happening to their families and beloved land.
I wish I could tell all of these young people’s stories, but here are a few examples:
As the youth spoke, there were few dry eyes in the court. Our Children’s Trust is attuned to the emotional stress the plaintiffs are experiencing, the psychological challenge of publicly sharing their stories, and the stress of testifying.
Psychiatry in the Courtroom
The plaintiff’s case reached a crescendo with the final testimony of Van Susteren. She outlined the mental health toll of climate change on youth in general and on these specific plaintiffs. She spoke of how anxiety, depression, and loss of trust in elders has affected the normal development for youth. She toggled between presenting the science of published literature to providing vivid examples, often using the plaintiffs’ experiences, to drive home the emotional experience.
The State’s Defense
The first week was devoted to the plaintiffs’ case. The defense cross-examination focused on its claim that since Montana’s contribution to fossil fuel emissions pales in comparison with total global emissions, the state should not be held responsible for these activities.
By the beginning of the defense’s case, 2 expected defense expert witnesses who had previously been deposed had withdrawn from the trial. The only state experts were 2 administrators for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, who claimed they can only carry out the law and follow procedural guidelines, which do not include considering climate change impacts. The final witness was Terry Anderson, an economist and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in California who stated that Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions are so minor compared with the global numbers that they should not be considered. The plaintiff’s attorneys challenged his facts as incorrect and a misrepresentation of the reality. The defense rested their case within an hour of the second day. Much to the surprise of many of us in attendance, the conclusion felt like an unexpected fizzle.
Youth Holding On to Hope
The plaintiffs spoke of the hope that would be ignited if they were to prevail in this ruling: “Despair is defined as the lack of complete and utter hope. I have to find hope even in my despair, because no hope, and not looking for any hope, is too devastating. The flowers [depicted in my painting] are the hope that humans are resilient enough, nature is resilient enough, and we can and will work together to stop the climate crisis.” The plaintiffs hope this case has an impact beyond their state.
Outcome: The Ruling
On August 15, Judge Kathy Seely announced her decision ruling wholly in favor of the plaintiffs. She declared that given the state’s actions of systematically promoting fossil fuels and ignoring climate change, Montana had violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and injured them by such actions.1
I feel enormously lucky to have been witnessed this historic trial and to have represented the voice of Climate Psychiatry Alliance as a supporter. But we cannot all be present in the courtrooms during these trials. We can show our solidarity by acting on the climate crisis in the many spheres of our influence. Consider joining Climate Psychiatry Alliance to follow updates and ways to engage, or advocate within the American Psychiatric Association for bringing the weight of our profession to various policy issues.
Dr Cooper is clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
1. Selig K. Judge rules in favor of Montana youths in landmark climate decision. The Washington Post. August 14, 2023. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/08/14/youths-win-montana-climate-trial/
2. Juliana v. United States. Our Children’s Trust. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/juliana-v-us