Low-Energy Fridays: A Montana Court Decision Shows Why Courts Can’t Solve Climate Change
This month, a Montana District Court judge ruled on Held vs. Montana, a suit brought by 16 young people who claimed the state’s greenhouse gas emissions presented “an unreasonable risk of harm.”
As originally filed, the lawsuit was stunning in the breadth of its demands. It sought the invalidation of a variety of statutes that had led the state to “implement a fossil fuel-based energy system.” The suit also asked that the court require the state to develop and oversee the implementation of a plan to reduce emissions. In effect, the suit sought to turn large chunks of state policymaking over to a single district judge.
This was too much for Judge Kathy Seeley, who rejected the plaintiffs’ request that she take over climate policy in the state. The court also dismissed most of the plaintiffs’ legal challenges. In the end, they prevailed only on claims relating to a statute preventing state officials from considering climate impacts during the environmental review process for fossil fuel projects, which the court held was inconsistent with a provision in the state constitution guaranteeing a “clean and healthful environment.”
Despite the radically reduced scope of the case, the judge’s sprawling 103-page opinion provides ample evidence as to why climate change issues are best settled through the legislative process rather than in court.
Consider just one example: A key issue in the Judge Seeley’s opinion is that of redressability—assuming the plaintiffs prove injury, would granting them their requested relief actually alleviate that injury? She noted that, in 2019, fossil fuel use in Montana resulted in the equivalent of 32 million tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Including additional emissions from fossil fuels processed or transported in or through Montana but consumed in other states, the court concludes that Montana’s fossil fuel-based economy was responsible for 166 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2019.
Those sound like big numbers, but when you consider that global greenhouse gas emissions amounted to nearly 50 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2019, you realize that Montana’s emissions accounted for only 0.2-0.3 percent of that total. Even if these emissions were totally eliminated, there would be no appreciable effect on the state’s climate during the plaintiffs’ lifetime. The Held decision itself does not propose to eliminate all or most of Montana’s greenhouse gas emissions, only to add a requirement to the permitting process for future fossil fuel infrastructure. At most, then, the relief granted by the court can only reduce a small fraction of Montana’s small fraction of global emissions—too little to have an appreciable effect on the climate.
As I’ve written previously, climate lawsuits are full of these sorts of problems. As the name suggests, global warming is a global issue. Not only does it involve every person on the planet, it also plays out over the course of decades—even centuries. It is not well-suited for resolution by a court, which is designed to deal with discrete disputes between a small number of parties and which lacks the ability to make the sort of compromises and trade-offs necessary to deal with this issue.
Americans love law and hate politics, so it is easy to see the appeal of settling a contentious issue like climate change in the courts. But what to do about climate change is an inherently political question. Asking a trial judge to try resolving the issue doesn’t change that; it just ends up turning judges into politicians. And that’s not good for America’s political or legal climate.