Rikki Held Fought the Climate Crisis in Court. And Won – Rolling Stone


he flash flood
rampaged down from the dry hills and over the road in front of Rikki Held’s house in eastern Montana. The rush of water drowned all other sound from the late June afternoon from where Held stood at the top of the driveway watching the torrent with her father. The spot by the mailbox where she’d stood waiting for the school bus as a kid, that she’d passed a thousand times—more—on her way in and out of the house, had become a foreign body of water. Neither Held, 22, nor her father had ever seen anything like this. With early summer fires still billowing smoke into the air after an unusually hot spring , the scene seemed a fitting one for the moment: it was just a few days after Held had returned from the state capital after testifying in the first youth climate case in the nation to make it to trial. Timing for when the judge would issue her verdict was unsure, anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

The rest of the summer was busy for Held: an internship with a professor on Antarctic research at Colorado College, from which she’d just graduated with a degree in environmental science; preparing to help the hydrologists who come every year to study the Powder River that runs through her family’s ranch—the same ones who got her interested in science in the first place; and a documentary on the case is being made with her as a main character. But even through all the activity, the pending verdict of the trial played on her mind constantly. This was the climax of all the work since she’d signed on to the lawsuit at 18 years old, to sue her home state of Montana for violating her Constitutional right to a clean environment by knowingly contributing to climate change.  

Held was in her first year of college when she heard about the lawsuit. She called Our Children’s Trust, leading the suit, and asked to be part of it. Soon after, the law firm asked her if they could use her name to file the suit; she was the only plaintiff of legal age. Also, although this part likely went unsaid by the firm, she carried a captivating uniqueness as a young person living the life of old Montana while setting her sights on the progressive, science-based future. Held didn’t hesitate. Of course, she said. Held v. Montana was filed on March 13, 2020. 

Had she known then that the case would take nearly four years of her life, that the entire world would be watching, that her father would worry the state might target the ranch in retaliation, that her name would exist in perpetuity as a lasting legal reference in one of the landmark environmental decisions of our time… would she still have done it?

Without question. And, maybe because she’s understated and more grounded than the average 22-year-old, or maybe because it’s clear that the spotlight is really not her thing, she’s quick to say that she only contributed what the other 15 youth plaintiffs did. “I’m just one small part of it,” she says from her ranch in Broadus. “My name on it is much bigger than myself. It represents this whole idea.”

HELD AND HER TWIN BROTHER ARE fifth-generation Montanans. Held’s great, great grandfather actually had a small coal mine. Her grandmother grew up on a sheep ranch during the Great Depression, and eventually bought the motels in Broadus, population 457, that Held’s family still owns and runs. Held and her brother have worked the family ranch since their father bought it when they were four years old; even then, they would go out on horseback to gather cattle from the sandstone bluffs and pine-covered hills. They tended the sheep, chickens, ducks, goats, turkeys, dogs, cats, and scores of horses their father trained. It all instilled in Held a sense that she was part of a bigger picture. And that if there was a problem, to “get a tool,” as her dad would say; there was always a way to solve it.

When I ask Held about her motivations for joining the suit, she goes back to her grandmother, who passed away just a few years ago. “She was so hardworking, and always taking care of people,” Held says in her measured voice. “She was just a really strong woman, involved in the community, one of the first members in the Northern Plains Resource Council”—a grassroots Montana agricultural group that works to protect the environment and the working landscapes on it.

Then Held reached back farther, to the 1972 Constitutional Convention where Montanans from all walks of life came together to rewrite the state guiding document, and crafted the rare right to a clean and healthy environment that’s at the heart of the youth climate case. “They put in protections for future generations, and we are the future generation they were trying to look out for,” she says. She talks about carrying those values forward, about every person doing their part to look after the land and its resources, the whole of the system, for who comes next. Because, she points out, “young people don’t have a say in our governments. Future generations don’t have a say. And time just seems so short.”

AS HELD WALKED INTO THE COURTROOM that first day of the trial on June 12 — through the single small protest around the block, national media from The New York Times to Nickelodeon, and the crowds of people who came in support — she tried to keep one word in her mind: Responsibility. Mae Nan Ellingson, who’d been the youngest delegate at the 1972 convention and helped write the language for the right to a clean environment into the state’s Constitution, would lead it all off as the first expert witness, testifying about longstanding Montana values. Then Held would take the stand as the first youth plaintiff to testify. She was hesitant to tell her personal story, more interested in all the science about to be presented; those were the hard facts that needed to be considered in policy, after all.

There was so much she could say on the stand. About how when she first heard about climate change, it was an abstract concept involving polar bears and rising levels of the seas she never saw in a landlocked state. About how then, though, things started happening at home. The increasingly extreme hail storms that totaled the family car not just once, but twice, and the lessening snow that no longer built up so high they had to dig out the front door the way their father used to. The cattle that died from starvation after the massive fire that started from an open coal seam and burned their pasture, and knocked out miles of powerlines so that they lived in the dark for weeks. But she only had twenty minutes on the stand, twenty minutes to say something that mattered, to the judge, to the state, twenty minutes in which to impart what was at stake in controlling our actions. Responsibility, she kept telling herself.

So she talked about the Richard Spring fire of 2021, that burned 170,000 acres and also started from a coal seam–underground deposits of coal can ignite, and the majority of coal seam fires start in abandoned or operative coal mines . She was home from college then, helping with a fencing project on the ranch. Broadus sweltered under three days of record-breaking temperatures — 110 degrees — and the sky was choked with wildfire smoke. Ashland, less than fifty miles away, and Lame Deer  had been evacuated. Broadus hadn’t been yet, and the ranch chores had to get done; animals didn’t stop depending on her family just because they didn’t want to go outside. Held spent twelve-hour days in the smoky heat under falling ash, wearing gloves to protect her hands from the searing fence posts. Her phone beeped repeatedly in her back pocket with air quality and extreme heat alerts. As if she needed an alert to tell her that this was the apocalypse out here. Each beep sent her heart into her throat anyway. She screenshotted one. In the courtroom, that screenshot came up on the presentation screen the plaintiff counsel used to illustrate testimonies. In that moment, she let it all sink in, everything she tries not to think about in order to go about her days: what this all means for her home, her family, the future. Tears came right there on the stand. 

The first week of the trial continued like that: expert witness, youth plaintiff, repeat, all accompanied by evocative imagery. Nobel Prize scientist Steve Running described the consensus on climate science. Sariel Sandoval, 20, a member of the Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’Oreille, and Dine Tribes, talked about how the Tribe’s Creation Stories, essential to explaining “to our youth who we are and our place in the world,” can only be told when the ground is blanketed in snow; that window of time is shortening. Anne Hedges, policy director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, explained specifics  about Montana’s permissive laws that allowed it to become one of the top five coal producers in the U.S., and to never in its history deny a permit sought by a fossil fuel company. Badge Busse, 15, mourned the slow vanish of familiar birds from the landscape in search of better climates.


Rikki Held, center, talks with other plaintiffs before a hearing in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena, Mont., on Monday, June 12, 2023.

Thom Bridge/”Independent Record”/AP Images

Held watched it all from her seat in the benches, riveted, but also sad. “I wish that these amazing, inspirational, young people didn’t have to do this and be in this courtroom because they’re still just kids,” she says. “We should have fixed this a long time ago. And our government should be protecting us.”

If it all felt cinematic, it’s because the plaintiff counsel engineered it that way. “A trial at its best is an opportunity to tell a compelling story in favor of your complaint,” says Roger Sullivan, a Kalispell-based attorney who led the questioning for youth plaintiff testimonies. And this was no ordinary trial. It was a week-long test case for showing that courts have jurisdiction to address climate issues.

In contrast, the state — after trying to keep the lawsuit from going to court multiple times and calling the youth tools exploited by “out-of-state climate activists trying to use Montana’s liberal courts to impose their authoritarian climate agenda on us” — framed it as a boring procedural case over the course a single dry day. It chose not to call many of its expert witnesses, including Judith Curry, a climate scientist who argues that climate variation is too complex to address with CO2 emissions. Curry offered an eviscerating take on the state’s legal team and its defense strategy on her blog, including writing, “MT’s lawyers were totally unprepared for direct and cross examination of climate science witnesses. This was not surprising, since this is a very complex issue that they apparently had not previously encountered.”

Then the court adjourned. And Held and everyone else went back to their respective homes to wait.

NEARLY EIGHT WEEKS LATER, on August 14, Held had just come down from camping in the mountains in Colorado after finishing up her research internship. She needed wifi to get a permit for a backpacking trip in Glacier National Park that she planned to do; she’d never been there. She opened her computer in a Starbucks parking lot, and there was an email at the top of her inbox: the ruling had come down. The youth won. The plaintiffs and counsel were starting a Zoom call at 10:30am to discuss what it all meant. It was 10:33. The timing was almost miraculous. Her first thought was, I can’t wait to tell my dad.

Judge Kathy Seeley’s 103-page verdict was sweeping. Yes, it was procedural, rolling back the two laws in question that prohibited state agencies from considering climate change impacts in issuing permits for development projects. But the most compelling part of the decision, Sullivan says, are the findings of fact on how climate change is disproportionately impacting youth, “because they apply to the youth plaintiffs in Montana, and all over the United States and all over the world. What we laid is a powerful factual foundation that can be applied across the United States.”

While most other states, let alone the rest of the world, don’t have the unique Constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment brought to bear in the Montana case, Sullivan explains the precedent set is broadly applicable under the equal protection clause, which bars the government from passing laws that have disparate impacts on people in similar circumstances—and equal protection applies nationally. “But also, imbued within this landmark decision, is that for one of the first times it establishes enforceable principles of intergenerational justice. What are the obligations from one generation to the next?”

The Montana Attorney General’s office called the verdict “absurd,” the trial “a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt,” and Judge Seeley an “ideological judge who bent over backward” to “earn herself a spot in their next documentary.” When asked for an updated comment for this story, a spokeswoman replied that “there’s no final judgment, so there’s nothing more to offer at this time.” The state will appeal and the case will go to the Montana Supreme Court, where state legal experts believe the ruling will be upheld.

Even if it is upheld though, Hedges says that, based on her thirty years of environmental policy work in the state, Montanans will be dealing with “a [regulatory] agency who doesn’t want to consider the climate, that’s going to be dragged into court time and time again” — on taxpayers’ dime — “to require it to do so until the agency accepts the fact that it’s obligated to consider climate change.” An administration change might shift agency attitudes; Montana’s current governor, Republican Greg Gianforte, “wants coal at all costs,” says Hedges, even though 54 of 56  counties in Montana believe  by a majority that climate change is affecting the state. Gianforte is up for re-election in 2024.

Realistically, Montanans will start seeing direct results of the ruling within five years regardless of administration change. That’s the interval at which existing energy projects are required to renew air quality permits. “And we will be there,” Hedges says. “Organizations like MEIC, and Western Environmental Law Center, and Earthjustice who are going to push the agency to comply with the right to a clean and healthy environment so eloquently described in Seeley’s decision.”

HELD DIDN’T GET TO GO FOR THAT backpacking trip in Glacier. She stayed with some friends in Colorado so she could be available for interviews and then drove back to Montana. She hopes she and her dad can get away from the motels and the ranch to at least go camping in Glacier for a few days, before she leaves in the fall to go to Kenya to teach science for the Peace Corps.

She says that the case taught her, the rational scientist, about the importance of telling personal stories, and understanding roles and responsibilities. “I want people to know that there’s still a long way to go, but they can have optimism,” she says. “It’s terrifying, but all we can do is take steps forward that are within our control, as individuals or state governments, or on a national or global scale. Wherever you’re at in life, whatever generation you’re from, if you’re a writer or rancher, scientist, attorney, artist—we can all make a difference in our own ways.”

Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/rikki-held-montana-climate-youth-trial-interview-1234812103/

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