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Montana climate decision heartens young activists in Maine

Emigrant Peak towers over the Paradise Valley in Montana north of Yellowstone National Park, on Nov. 21, 2016.
Matthew Brown
Emigrant Peak towers over the Paradise Valley in Montana north of Yellowstone National Park, on Nov. 21, 2016.

This week, a Montana judge sided with 16 young plaintiffs in their landmark court case against the state over its climate policies. Young climate activists in Maine say they're encouraged by the ruling.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argued that the state's fossil-fuel based energy system violated provisions of the state constitution guaranteeing a right to a clean and healthful environment.

Young climate activists in Maine and other states have been watching the case closely. Twenty-three year old Brianna Cunliffe started working on climate issues when she was 16. She now works for A Climate to Thrive, an organization trying to transition Mount Desert Island off fossil fuels.

"I think it was so heartening, because the achingly real harms that young people experience as a result of climate change are so often dismissed, by our courts and in our public discourse," Cunliffe says, "and in Montana this week they were vindicated instead."

Cunliffe notes that Maine's constitution doesn't have the same explicit guarantee to a healthy environment, and the state has a different relationship to fossil fuels, but she says that the Montana decision has the potential to galvanize youth action.

Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute, says the legal victory shows the power of the youth climate movement that's been gaining traction worldwide.

"They are getting inroads into changing policy and in this case, we have a successful lawsuit here, where other efforts have either failed or stalled out before they even got off the ground," Gill says.

And Cole Cochrane, the 18-year-old co-founder of Maine Youth Action, says he hopes the Montana legal case will build support for the Pine Tree Amendment. That proposal would have enshrined a right to a clean environment in Maine's constitution but failed to win legislative approval this year.

"It was absolutely amazing to see this case have such a favorable ruling because it really shows the merits of this constitutional amendment, that it's not just words, that it can produce meaningful action," Cole says.

Similar lawsuits are pending in Hawaii, Utah, and Virginia.

The State of Montana intends to appeal the decision to the state supreme court.

Murray Carpenter is Maine Public’s climate reporter, covering climate change and other environmental news.