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Children, parents file suit to set, enforce limits on greenhouse gases in Montana

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051511 global warming lawsuit
Bente Bechtold, 10, is among 16 children and parents who have filed a lawsuit with the Montana Supreme Court to order the state to set and enforce limits on greenhouse gases. Behind Bente at left is her father, Tim Bechtold, who is also a plaintiff, and Missoula attorney Tom Beers, who is representing the Bechtolds. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Bente Bechtold is 10 years old and can't remember a time in her life when she wasn't worried about climate change.

"I've known about it forever and ever and ever," she said.

What she knows makes her mad.

"I just really thought our leaders really weren't paying much attention to it," said the Sussex School fourth-grader.

So Bente and her 12-year-old brother, Stellan, whose own feelings on the subject are equally pronounced - the government, he chides, "could do better" - took action.

They sued.

Bente and Stellan, along with 16 other children and parents, want the Montana Supreme Court to order the state - specifically the Legislature - to set and enforce limits on greenhouse gases.

Their suit filed May 4 is part of a legal strategy in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to limit climate change on behalf of the young people who will inherit its effects. That change is so imminent and so consequential, the Montana suit maintains, as to justify going directly to the state Supreme Court.

"There is not enough time to effectively arrest the effect of human-caused climate change unless immediate action is taken," it says. "Climatological ‘tipping points' lie directly ahead."

For Bente and Stellan, signing onto the lawsuit was a no-brainer.

"I was like, yessss!" Stellan said.

***

The suits filed in 11 states so far, as well as one in federal court, are being coordinated by Our Children's Trust, an Oregon-based nonprofit.

The group bases the lawsuits and its name on the legal notion that the atmosphere is part of the public trust, a doctrine that dates to the Roman Empire and that largely has been applied to cases involving bodies of water.

"The things which are naturally everybody's are: air, flowing water, the sea and the sea-shore," the Emperor Justinian wrote in the year 533 A.D., a concept that went on to become part of English common law and eventually American colonial charters and this country's common law.

Montana added some extra oomph to that doctrine with its 1972 Constitution that sets out the citizens' right to "a clean and healthful environment."

"We have a constitutional provision which basically provides the public trust," said Tom Beers of Missoula, one of six Montana attorneys representing the young people and parents filing the lawsuit. "What we're trying to do is basically establish the need for the atmosphere to be part of the public trust so that hopefully the laws and regulations we already have in Montana can be put into play to protect that trust."

If the state already has laws and regulations, then why sue?

According to the suit:

"The state has been prevented by the Legislature from taking any action to regulate GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, despite a legal obligation to do so." It accuses both the Legislature and the governor of viewing climate change response "to be a matter of political discretion, not legal discretion."

When that happens, the suit concludes, "petitioners are left with no alternatives but to fight their government."

***

Rich Opper heads the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, which is named in the suit as an example of the problem.

The agency could have adopted rules on greenhouse gas emissions, but was effectively blocked by a legislative committee, the lawsuit says - even as it quotes Opper to bolster its point:

"As Montanans, we are rightfully concerned that climactic changes will lessen our historic accesses to these resources. Parents and grandparents worry that we may pass along something less than what we have known."

Last week, Opper called the suit "an interesting tactic."

"I guess the effort doesn't surprise me," he said.

John Thiebes, 23, of Kalispell, said the recently ended legislative session - which briefly featured a bill that would have declared climate change good for Montana's economy - underscores the need for the action demanded in the lawsuit.

Thiebes, in his third year at Montana State University, plans to farm in Carter, north of Great Falls, when he graduates.

"Agriculture depends first and foremost on a healthy ecosystem, a healthy environment," he said. "If we can't protect that, it'll be difficult to have productive agriculture, and if we can't have productive agriculture in Chouteau County, it'll be difficult to have strong and resilient communities," he said.

Chouteau County has lost 10 percent of its population in the past seven years, he said.

"I want to raise my family in a community that's strong. I don't want to raise my family in a rural desert."

***

Thiebes said his stance on climate change already has raised some eyebrows among other farmers, including the younger ones, in Chouteau County. So he thought long and hard before signing on to the suit.

"I don't want to go out and make my life harder than it's already going to be by polarizing myself with my neighbors because of my beliefs," he said. "I hope it sparks a larger discussion."

Missoula attorney Tim Bechtold, filing the suit on behalf of his children, said that both Stellan and Bente are prepared to testify if the state Supreme Court hears the case.

"I'm glad they stepped forward," he said. "Stellan and Bente's generation will grow up with the impacts that my generation and my parents' generation caused."

Stellan Bechtold, who last year built a solar panel for a school science project, said it's important for kids to speak out on the issue.

"We don't have enough say in the world," he said.

His sister takes the long view. Both she and her brother play ice hockey.

"I don't want that to be impossible when I grow up," she said.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio @missoulian.com or CopsAndCourts.com.

 

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Related to this story

A lawsuit challenging the state of Montana to fight climate change on behalf of generations to come has advanced a step, with the Montana Supreme Court ordering the state to respond.

The petition filed by parents and children from across the state seeks to include the Earth's atmosphere as part of the "public trust," as are many waters. The suit aims to force the state to set and enforce limits on greenhouse gases.

BILLINGS - The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday denied a petition filed by attorneys seeking new regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Siding with Attorney General Steve Bullock, justices wrote in Wednesday's order that the case raised too many questions about Montana's contribution to a global problem for a ruling on purely legal questions as sought by the plaintiffs.

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