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As per usual, US media vastly underplay historic “Climate Kids” pro-environment ruling by MT judge

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Image courtesy PBS NEWSHOUR

PBS NEWSHOUR co-anchor Geoff Bennett devoted just 22 seconds to the landmark climate ruling during the one-hour telecast.

By Alfred Robert Hogan

As per usual, the US corporate news media continues to either utterly ignore or seriously downplay the No. 1 climate crisis, which should be dominating newscasts and newspapers, day in and day out. One striking example: the story that clearly warrants lead status and in-depth “breaking news” live coverage, even by entrenched journalistic metrics, most of the reportage is, at most, cursory or buried.

Take the case of the historic landmark ruling in the climate lawsuit Rikki Held et al vs. State of Montana et al, handed down on Monday 14 August, which unquestionably deserved major lead-story treatment by the news media. But of 349 US newspaper front pages posted the next day on the Freedom Forum/Newseum Web site, plus The Washington Post, only two papers—both in Montana, dubbed “the carbon capital of the world”—made the story their lead. Even there, no banner headlines ran. And network television news proved even worse.

First page of Judge Seeley’s historic decision in the Montana “Climate Kids” case.

The decision, written by Montana First District Court for Lewis and Clark County Judge Kathy Seeley, and based in part on the seven-day June 2023 trial she presided over in the state capital of Helena, ruled that the state’s legislators and regulators must abide by the 1972 Montana constitution’s provision promising to “maintain and improve a clean and healthy environment for present and future generations” and to protect the state’s natural resources from “unreasonable depletion.” This especially applies when considering new fossil fuels projects, the judge wrote. (Only the Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Hawai’i state constitutions currently include even somewhat similar language.)

Montana, a state that some historians described as a “corporate colony” controlled by extractive industries, ranks 5th in US coal production and 12th in oil—and in 2019, produced as many greenhouse gas emissions as the entire country of Ireland. Montana has even been called "the carbon capital of the world." The state derives 40 percent of its power from mine coal, and ships plenty elsewhere. On the positive side, experts estimate the state could produce 330 times as much wind energy as it needs for all its power. Solar, hydro, and other renewable energy, could supply additional power and, with electrification, result in a much cleaner environment.

The Montana Held lawsuit had been filed back on Friday 13 March 2020, by the Eugene, Oregon-based nonprofit environmental law firm, Our Children’s Trust (OCT), and by 16 Montana young people, now aged 5 to 22 years old. Among the 16: the lead plaintiff, fifth-generation Montanan Rikki Held, the only adult plaintiff when the suit was originally filed. Rather ironically, she is the now-22-year-old daughter of Montana cattle-ranching parents, who own a spread along the Powder River near Broadus in southeastern MT, totaling more than 2800 hectares. (In spring 2023, Rikki Held graduated from Colorado College, with an environmental science major/degree, and she has since joined the US Peace Corps, bound for Kenya. Eight years earlier, as a middle schooler in 2015, she had been acknowledged for her precocious assistance in a peer-reviewed scientific paper by US Geological Survey scientists in the journal GeoResJ“Preserving geomorphic data records of flood disturbances.” For that paper, she had helped USGS researchers study cross sections of Montana’s Powder River, among the US West’s longest undammed rivers or streams, and which runs through her family’s ranch. She aided in measuring widths of the Powder River. That experience and contacts led to environmental internships, then college, and deepened her interest in hard science. Recently, she contributed to a NASA-funded environmental study.)

Since 2010, the nonprofit Our Children’s Trust has painstakingly filed climate lawsuits in all 50 US states, but only four remain active. OCT also took on against the US federal government, with a suit filed in Oregon district federal court, on Wednesday 12 August 2015. The Obama, Trump, and Biden regimes have all repeatedly sought to delay the federal case and to have it dismissed. That case features 21 young plaintiffs, aged 4 to 25, including lead plaintiff Kelsey Juliana. Juliana et al vs. United States et al was finally set, in June 2023, to come to trial in Eugene OR—billed by some as “the case of the century”—on Monday 29 October (and last some 8 to 12 weeks). Worldwide, close to 2,500 climate suits have been filed, including more than 1,500 in the USA.

Judge Seeley’s much-awaited, citation-filled, 103-page Held decision entirely sided with the young people. She stated Montana’s practice of routinely promoting and permitting fossil fuel projects violated the state’s constitution. She also ruled as unconstitutional two the so-called “limitation” to the Montana Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), which the state legislature amended to further weaken in 2023, as well as an additional law provision about greenhouse gas emissions also further weakened this year. Seeley stated the latter “removes the only preventative, equitable relief available to the public and MEPA litigants.” She also wrote: “Plaintiffs have a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment, which includes climate….Montana’s emissions and climate change have been have been---a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to environment and harm and injury.”

As OCT summarized the judge’s decision, which cited the state constitution’s Article II and Article IX, Seeley declared “the state of Montana violated the youth’s constitutional rights, including their rights to equal protection, dignity, liberty, health and safety, and public trust, which are all predicate on their right to a clean and healthful environment. The court also “invalidated as unconstitutional and enjoined Montana laws that promoted fossil fuels and required turning a blind eye to climate change.” And the court ruled “the youth plaintiffs had proven their standing to bring the case by showing significant injuries, the government’s substantial role in causing them, and that a judgement in their favor would change the government’s conduct.” As Seeley wrote, “Montana’s emissions and climate change have been proven to be a substantial factor in causing climate impacts to Montana’s environment and harm and injury” to youths. (Officially, in the Held case, the defendants were: the State of Montana, Gov. “Greg” Gianforte, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the Montana Department of Transportation, and the Montana Public Service Commission.)

While not legally binding outside Montana, the decision is expected to have huge symbolic value and major influence in other similar cases, and provided a morale boost as the first legal victory of its kind is US history. Legal experts not involved in the case attested to that assessment.

Reacting, Julia Olson, the founder of and top attorney at Our Children's Trust, called the decision a "huge win for Montana, for youth, for democracy, and for our climate…More rulings like this will certainly come." Similar cases filed by OCT are pending in other US states, with the Hawai’i case (Navahine H. vs. Hawai’i Department of Transportation, with 14 plaintiffs, filed on Wednesday 1 June 2022), now set for trial from Monday 24 June 2024 through Friday 12 July 2024. One in Utah (Natalie Roussel et al vs. State of Utah, with 7 plaintiffs, filed on Tuesday 15 March 2022) and one in Virginia (Laylalti H. vs. Commonwealth of Virginia, with 13 plaintiffs, filed on Thursday 9 February 2023) likewise slowly moving toward trial. Cases have also been filed by OCT, and others, in nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Colombia, and Uganda.

However, also reacting to the decision for the press was Alan Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, with some rather sarcastic words: "We can't just shut down the coal mines. We can't just shut down the oil and gas production. We can't just shut down the refineries. It'll put us into a tremendous economic downturn…The coal is still gonna be mined. We're still going to produce oil and gas. But [the decision] is going to give [environmental activists] a little more impetus to start filing more lawsuits.”

Meanwhile, Montana officials quickly announced they will appeal Judge Seeley’s decision to the Montana Supreme Court, also based in Helena (after that, the only remaining long-odds appeal is to DC’s SCOTUS). Emily Flower, spokeswoman for Montana’s far-right Republican state attorney general, Austin Knudsen (elected to a four-year term in November 2020, with 58.5 percent of the vote), said in an over-the-top vitriolic statement: “This ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiffs’ attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer-funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial…Montanans can’t be blamed for changing the climate–-even the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses agreed that our state has no impact on the global climate. Their same legal theory has been thrown out of federal court and courts in more than a dozen states. It should have been here as well, but they found an ideological judge who bent over backward to allow the case to move forward and earn herself a spot in their documentary.”

In the June 2023 trial, the lead witness for the plaintiffs was Montana lawyer Mae Nan Robinson Ellingson, the youngest of 100 delegates responsible in 1972 for including that environmental-protection language into the new Montana constitution. (She was a 24-year-old University of Montana graduate student at the time.) In all, 12 plaintiffs testified during five days, interspersed with one father of two other young plaintiffs, plus eight expert attorneys and climate scientists. They told personal stories and science facts about Montana’s climate-crisis-fueled toll of wildfires, drought, flooding, heat waves, and serious storms.

The state wound up truncating its “whataboutism”-centric case to one day from five, presenting only three witnesses—two officials from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, and one far-right “free market economist” from California’s Hoover Institution, Terry Anderson, who is also a Montana State University professor emeritus. The state dropped another planned witness, a former GIT professor, Judith A. Curry, who has of late made something of a career as more or less a climate denialist, funded in part by fossil fuels interests. A mental health specialist witness was also dropped.)

Part of Rikki Held’s family ranch in Broadus, Montana, in the state known as “Big Sky Country.”

For perspective, Montana, widely renowned as “Big Sky Country” full of natural beauty, also has a lengthy history of robustly encouraging extractive industries to have their way. For example, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company basically controlled state politics and media for much of its existence from 1881 till 1983, even outright owning several Montana newspapers—as well as a good many Montana politicians. (The corrupted politics and newspaper journalism featured in an unspecified US Western state in director Frank Capra’s 1939 film classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was clearly inspired by the bleak political media landscape in Montana.) In recent decades, the fossil fuel industry has wielded major power, as long have animal agriculture interests (as vividly depicted in the 1985 Larry McMurtry novel Lonesome Dove, with its late 1870s cattle drive, from Texas to Montana. which was then in its 1864-1889 territory era. That fictional drive bolstered the state’s animal agriculture involvement. Montana became the 41th US state in November 1889, now ranking as the 4th largest in area, with a little more than 1.12 million people. Despite its Spanish name meaning mountain—the Indian name Shoshone was briefly considered—the eastern half of the state is generally flat.).

Currently, Montana is led by Gov. Gregory Richard “Greg” Gianforte, a 62-year-old far-right Republican, and one of the lawsuit’s targets. In June 2017, he was convicted of assaulting political reporter Ben Jacobs of London’s The Guardian newspaper, on the eve of Gianforte’s May 2017 special election victory to the US House. Gianforte “body-slammed” Jacobs to the floor and punched him, breaking the reporter’s glasses and sending him to the hospital. Jacobs had been trying to ask Gianforte about his position on health care. Both Gianforte and his campaign initially blatantly lied about the incident, but an audio recording and statements by journalistic colleagues at Fox News backed up what Jacobs had said occurred. Notwithstanding the public assault on a journalist, Gianforte the next day garnered a winning 49.95 percent of the vote. In his victory speech that night, Gianforte did apologize. His later sentence, for “misdemeanor assault,” was to complete 40 hours of community service, attend 20 hours of anger management classes, and pay US $385 in fines and court costs. In October 2018, at a Republican political rally in Bozeman, then-POTUS Donald J. Trump publicly praised Gianforte for the body-slam, thereby becoming the first sitting US POTUS to “openly and directly praise a violent act against a journalist on [US] American soil,” as The Guardian noted. In November 2020, Gianforte was elected governor to a four-year term, with 54.43 percent of the vote.

Gianforte, who avidly advocates anti-science Christian creationism and contends that Earth is about 6,000 years old (rather than the scientifically agreed actual age of some 4.5 billion years), has compiled an extremely anti-environment record. While he grudgingly acknowledges human-fueled “climate change” exists, he has broached no specific ideas on addressing it, and has often repeated the denialist mantra that "the climate is always changing." He has long denied that closing coal-fired power plants would contribute to fixing climate problems. In the House, he introduced a bill to strip wilderness protection from several Montana areas. Gianforte backed then-POTUS Donald J. Trump's repeal of former POTUS Barack H. Obama’s all-too-modest 2014-2015 Clean Power Plan, and the governor backs oxymoronic “clean coal.” He wants to sharply cut how much time the US Department of Interior can spend reviewing permits to drill and frack for yet more shale gas. He wants to weaken both the federal 1973 Endangered Species Act and the federal 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act, the latter move to cut litigation, as he decries "environmental extremists" for “abusing” that law.

In addition, Montana’s bicameral state legislature, which meets for a maximum of 90 days and only every two years, currently has Republican supermajorities in both chambers. The GOP controls the House 68 to 32, and the Senate 34 to 18. All of Montana’s elected Republicans closely ally with fossil fuel interests, as do some elected Democrats. The 7-seat Montana Supreme Court, whose members range in age from 57 to 76, in generally described as conservative-leaning, though not necessarily in lock-step with the GOP and Big Fossil Fuels.

* * * * * * * * * *

Inexplicably for the historic Held ruling, no Special Events Special Reports interrupted US broadcast television network programming to herald news of the decision. Not on ABC. Not on CBS. Not on NBC.

NBC NIGHTLY NEWS anchor intros short report from Anne Thompson.

Here are three examples from the token coverage on broadcast network TV newscasts that night:

  • On the half-hour NBC NIGHTLY NEWS telecast, anchor Lester Holt in NYC devoted only about 1 minute and 4 seconds to the story, 2/3 into the broadcast. With the chyron graphic reading LANDMARK RULING CLIMATE CHANGE TRIAL, environmental correspondent Anne Thompson, sitting adjacent to Holt, then gave a short report over B-roll video.

  • On the half-hour ABC WORLD NEWS telecast, anchor David Muir in NYC devoted just 30 seconds to an anchor “tell, deep into the broadcast, with no video. The graphic behind him read, “YOUTHS WIN LANDMARK CLIMATE VISTORY.”

  • On the PBS NEWSHOUR telecast, co-anchor Geoff Bennet near DC devoted only 22 seconds to the story in an anchor “tell,” with no video. The story ran just three sentences.

  • For the half-hour CBS EVENING NEWS telecast, neither tape nor transcript (nor personal notes were available for this article. The CBS News Web site posted a 12-graf AP story that mid-afternoon, with the headline, “Montana judge rules for young activists in landmark climate trial.”


Image courtesy DEMOCRACY NOW!

Short excerpt from interview with “Climate Kids” plaintiff Grace Gibson-Synder aired on DEMOCRACY NOW!

Next morning, on DEMOCRACY NOW!’s one-hour news telecast, which usually provides much better climate crisis coverage than most news outlets, anchor Amy Goodman in NYC devoted about 100 seconds to the story. It ran third, after headlines about the 4th indictment of former POTUS Donald J. Trump in Atlanta and the aftermath of Maui fires in Hawaii. A brief video excerpt was included from Goodman’s recent interview with one of the plaintiffs, Grace Gibson-Synder, 19, talking about the potential climate-induced loss of the namesake glaciers in Montana’s iconic Glacier National Park. No later in-depth segment that day focused on the ruling. However, on Wednesday, the final 15 minutes of the hour was devoted to the story, featuring a live joint interview with Julia Olson in Eugene OR and with one of the plaintiffs, Olivia Vesovich, 20, in Missoula MT, where she is now a student at the University of Montana.

Image courtesy of CNN

Rikki Held and Julia Olson flank interviewer Jake Tapper, in this slit-screen shot.

On cable TV’s original all-news network, CNN-US, the ruling received only very brief same-day coverage, a 4 minute 13 second day-of-decision live dual interviews on THE LEAD, led by anchor Jake Tapper in DC, with lead plaintiff Rikki Held and Julia Olson, founder of OCT. CNN slotted the non-in-depth “Earth Matters” segment for several hours after the decision’s release, with a segment airing at 1747 EDT—more than 7/8ths into the 2-hour program. A careful review of extensive CNN-US transcripts for that day found no other mentions of the decision. (Any MSNBC and Fox News Channel cable coverage could not be checked or accessed.)

Coverage in print editions of US newspapers was also mostly abysmal, according to a review by this reporter of the DC-based Newseum’s Today’s Front Pages for the day after the ruling. Of 349 US newspapers from 48 US states covered (excepting North Dakota and Wyoming), only two papers—both in Montana—ran the story lead on their front pages, and even there with only modest play. Only 15 Newseum newspapers in just 13 US states ran the story elsewhere on their front pages, including a short “refer” in The Los Angeles Times, sending readers inside for the full article. (The Washington Post, atypically not included in the Newseum newspapers, in addition did run the story off-lede, albeit under a one-column headline—”Montana youths win landmark climate suit/Plaintiffs argued that state violated right to ‘healthful environment,” by staffer Kate Selig.)

The two papers running the story lead, as all should have, were:

  • Helena Independent Record (MT)

  • Missoula Missoulian (MT)

Here is a list of the other newspapers that gave the ruling front-page coverage, with all of these but The New York Times using the AP wire dispatch:

  • Anchorage Daily News (AK):

  • Colorado Springs Gazette (CO)

  • Lewiston Tribune (ID)

  • Minneapolis Star-Tribune (MN)

  • The New York Times (NY): “Montana Judge Rules for Youth in Climate Case” one-column below-the-fold piece by staffers David Gelles and Mike Baker, jumping inside

  • Marietta Times (OH)

  • Portland Oregonian (OR)

  • Westerly Sun (RI)

  • Knoxville News Sentinel (TN)

  • Marysville The Daily Times (TN)

  • The Roanoke Times (VA): “Montana youths win landmark climate case/Court finds young people have right to healthy environment” (AP)

  • Vancouver Columbian (WA): “Young climate activists prevail at trial/Montana officials seek to overturn decision on appeal” (AP)

As Rikki Held told VICE News in a video interview on her family’s ranch in Broadus, before the trial, “When I was first learning about climate change in high school, I saw it as something on the other side of the world, like polar bears and ice melting or the coastlines with sea level rise…Living in the U.S., in a land-locked place I didn’t really think about how it affected me, even though I’d seen these changes while I was growing up…Being part of this case, it’s been nice to put my own story into the broader climate change narrative and make the connections through science and observation of how my home plays into it…Montana is a big emitter of fossil fuels and is contributing to climate change. I know it’s a broader global issue, but you can’t not take responsibility.”

Photo courtesy Our Children’s Trust/Robin Loznak

In June 2023, plaintiff Rikki Held, above sitting in court, and the other plaintiffs finally got their day in court—and they movingly testified.

Some additional resources include:

Examples of decision coverage online or in print:

  • · Samantha Granville in Montana and Chloe Kim in New York/BBC News, “Judge sides with 16 activists in Montana climate case,” BBC News, Monday 14 August 2023

  • · Dharna Noor, “Montana’s landmark climate ruling: three key takeaways/A judge last week ruled the young plaintiffs have the right to a clean environment – and experts say this changed the climate litigation landscape,” The Guardian (London UK), Sunday 20 August 2023

  • · Clark Mindock, “Montana judge hands historic win to young plaintiffs in climate change case,” Reuters, Tuesday 15 August 2023

  • · Angelina C. Dsouza, “Montana-youths-win-environment-case-against-the-state-taking-one-step-forward-to-being-the-change,” Scoop Upworthy, September 2023

  • · Ellie Nilsen, “Montana judge hands young plaintiffs significant victory in landmark climate trial,”, CNN Web site online, Monday 14 August 2023

Examples of television and video coverage:

Additional background pieces: (the other 15 plaintiffs are profiled on the main OCT Web site as well)

Transcript of CNN short segment on Held ruling at 1747 EDT that day:

17:47:45 EDT

TAPPER: In our Earth Matter Series now, as we continue to see more devastating and deadly extreme weather events such as the fires in Maui, a major legal victory. A judge has ruled Montana's continued use and mining of fossil fuels violates the state's constitution's guarantee of a clean and healthful environment for current and future generations. Sixteen young people from Montana sued the state in Rikki unprecedented case. And I'm joined now by the lead plaintiff, Ricky Held, Julia Olson is also with me. She's the chief legal counsel for Our Children's Trust, the organization representing young people in pending climate cases in four other states. Rikki, congratulations. I have a 13-year-old and 15-year-old and I often think about how are they and that generation, including you, going to judge my generation when it comes to climate change and especially the baby boomers who, you know, between you and me, I think are mainly responsible.

But today's ruling may set legal precedent for similar cases in other states. It won't, however, stop the mining or the burning of fossil fuels in Montana. So what is your reaction to the ruling?

RIKKI HELD, PLAINTIFF, MONTANA CLIMATE COURT CASE: Well, first of all, I'm just really excited about the ruling. It's been a long time coming. We've waited three years just being part of this case, and we've known about human cause of climate change at least half a century so, just getting a ruling that listens to our stories and our voices and to the best available science is just really important.

And, yes, all we can do is the actions that are in our control moving forward and whether that's as individuals or states, we can take responsibility and all generations are involved in that.

TAPPER: And Rikki, the Office of Montana's Attorney General said in a statement, quote, this ruling is absurd, but not surprising from a judge who let the plaintiff's attorneys put on a weeklong taxpayer- funded publicity stunt that was supposed to be a trial, unquote. Montana is expected, of course, to appeal the ruling. You just graduated from college. Will you continue this fight if the state appeals?

HELD: Yes, if -- Julia can talk about the more. But if it gets appealed, then we'll go to the Montana Supreme Court and it'll continue. Yes.

[17:50:06] TAPPER: Julia, on a practical level, what does this ruling accomplish beyond obviously the symbolic victory.

JULIA OLSON, CHIEF LEGAL COUNSEL AND EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Yes, I mean, this ruling is monumental. It's one of the most important rulings on climate change in the history of the world. And what happened in Montana was experts, climate scientists, energy specialists, medical professionals, and the youth like Rikki took the stand, and they told the truth about what's happening to the planet and to Montana and to the health of these young people.

And what the ruling will do is it will stop fossil fuel pollution, not overnight in Montana, but it does really hamper the state's ability to continue to approve new fossil fuel projects. The judge says it's unconstitutional to continue to do so, and the state's going to have to look hard at continuing to allow fossil fuel development and emissions in Montana going forward. TAPPER: But if the state does appeal the ruling and it goes to the Montana Supreme Court, is that friendly terrain for your case, do you think, Julia?

OLSON: I think the Montana Supreme Court is a very fair and thoughtful court that is willing to uphold the Montana Constitution and protect the rights of the people of Montana, including its youth. So we think we have a really fair shot, as any case does headed up there. And in the meanwhile, Judge Seeley's opinion is the law of the land in the state of Montana and the state's required to comply with it.

TAPPER: And do you plan on doing this in other states?

OLSON: We do. We have a Hawaii trial set for June 2024. We're going to the Utah Supreme Court this fall, and we're also in the Virginia Court of Appeals in addition to our big federal case, the Juliana versus United States litigation, where we're also aiming to get to trial early next year.

TAPPER: All right, Julia Olson and Rikki Held, congratulations to both of you and thank you for your time today. OLSON: Thank you.

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