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The Montana Climate Case and Our Obligation to the Future

By Dr. Steven Cohen, Senior Vice Dean, School of Professional Studies; Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs

In mid-August, a group of young people from Montana won a breakthrough case in the global struggle to achieve environmental sustainability. Montana’s constitution requires the state to protect the environment for future generations. As reported by David Gelles and Mike Baker in the New York Times:

“A group of young people in Montana won a landmark lawsuit on Monday when a judge ruled that the state’s failure to consider climate change when approving fossil fuel projects was unconstitutional…The ruling means that Montana, a major coal and gas producing state that gets one-third of its energy by burning coal, must consider climate change when deciding whether to approve or renew fossil fuel projects…The Montana case revolved around language in the state Constitution that guarantees residents “the right to a clean and healthful environment,” and stipulates that the state and individuals are responsible for maintaining and improving the environment “for present and future generations.” A handful of other states have similar guarantees, and young people in Hawaii, Utah and Virginia have filed lawsuits that are slowly winding their way through courts. A federal case brought by young people, which had been stalled for years, is once again moving, heading toward a June trial in Oregon.

I often focus on the pragmatic issues and the tradeoffs that we must face as we transition to an environmentally sustainable economy, but today I want to focus on the ethical imperative this case illuminates. None of us built this planet and created the bounty that makes our lives and our way of life possible. But many of us are parents and even grandparents and bear the responsibility for bringing new human lives into being. We derive joy and emotional sustenance from our children and their children, and it is a wonderful part of human existence. Many of us have not enabled human life but have cared for parents, friends, and pets and connect emotionally with those living beings as well. Lots of people have walked in the woods to experience and observe the natural world. Some rely on nature to hunt and fish and derive both physical and emotional sustenance from their time in natural settings. This joy and pleasure should never be taken for granted, and just as we restore a campsite to the condition that we found when we arrived, we must consider it reasonable to assume that we need to behave the same way with the planet. In my view, each of us has an ethical obligation to ensure that new human and non-human life forms on this planet enjoy the same opportunities to experience the natural world that we have.

This is not a new story. I often remark that in the first environmental policy course I ever took back in 1975, we discussed our responsibility for the future and read Robert Heilbroner’s Enquiry into the Human Prospect with its afterward that explained what posterity does for humanity. During my final year in high school (1970), the James Madison Senior Yearbook (“The Log”) featured The Little Prince, who taught us that we were “responsible for what we tame.” In writing about our responsibility for the future in the New York Times in 1975, Heilbroner wrote:

“Why should I lift a finger to affect events that will have no more meaning for me 75 years after my death than those that happened 75 years before I was born? There is no rational answer to that terrible question. No argument based on reason will lead me to care for posterity or to lift a finger in its behalf. Indeed, by every rational consideration, precisely the opposite answer is thrust upon us with irresistible force…I believe that the coming generations, in their encounters with famine, war and the threatened life‐carrying capacity of the globe… [humans will] glimpse into the void of a universe without man. I must rest my ultimate faith on the discovery by these future generations, as the ax of the executioner passes into their hands, of the transcendent importance of posterity for them.”

It’s been nearly a half-century since Heilbroner mused about posterity and self-interest. Perhaps the Montana case demonstrates recognition of the “transcendent importance of posterity.” I am inspired by the courage and fortitude of the young people who are suing government to protect their right to continue to experience the natural world. There are visions of the future where technology replaces nature and where we leave this planet in ruins and can only simulate nature in experiential entertainment (like the Star Trek holodeck). We then leave this planet to plunder the resources of other planets. Climate change, declining American groundwater supplies, toxics, and biodiversity destruction are facts of life in the 21st century. People my age will not be around to experience the long-term impact of this damage, but we have caused it.

I have little patience for symbolic politics and destructive gestures like destroying artwork to protest environmental devastation, but I am filled with admiration for the young people who are using the law to communicate and establish the principle of their right to nature. I was thrilled by the Montana case and deeply moved by Judge Kathy Seely’s ruling in favor of the young plaintiffs suing the State of Montana and her decision that these young people had “a fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate as a part of the environmental life-support system.”

There are people who strongly believe that government has no business discouraging the mining and burning of fossil fuels. They make the compelling point that the causes of global warming are global, and that local action alone cannot prevent this form of environmental degradation. In this view, the state constitution should focus on local pollutants that impact local conditions. But pollution does not recognize state and national boundaries, and our ethical responsibility for the planet must begin with those actions that are under our control. Moreover, a journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step.

A case like this is a landmark despite its limited practical application. It is important because it is an indication of a paradigm shift—a change in how we perceive the world working. While the ideology and financial interests promoting fossil fuel extraction will persist for some time, advances in renewable energy technology have already begun to drive fossil fuels from the marketplace. This form of environmental degradation will eventually fade. But others will follow—especially the drive to develop land for housing and agriculture. The Montana decision provides an opportunity to influence the environmental impact of those activities in the future.

We must focus on the future and the well-being of those who will follow us. Often, environmental damage can be reversed, and ecologies can be restored, but some damage is irreversible. We need to cultivate an ethic of reverence for the land and practice humility as we exercise our drive to develop that land. Our goal should always be to minimize our impact. Where the damage is great and irreversible, we should seriously consider abandoning that development project and focus our capital and energy on another location. Many of our cities have abandoned buildings and even whole blocks that are ripe for investment. Developing abandoned “brownfields” might well make more sense than developing pristine “greenfields.” The case brought by these young people from Montana should remain front of mind, and we should think about them and the others who will follow and work hard to ensure they will inherit a planet they can thrive on.

This article was originally published in State of the Planet.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute, or Columbia University.

About the Program

The Columbia University M.S. in Sustainability Management provides students cutting-edge policy and management tools they can use to help public and private organizations and governments address environmental impacts and risks, pollution control, and remediation to achieve sustainability. The program is customized for working professionals and is offered as both a full- and part-time course of study.

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