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What it’s like to sue the government over climate change (she won) » Yale Climate Connections

When Rikki Held was younger, climate change seemed like something that happened to the other side of the world — or to polar bears. But the issue turned personal when drought, floods, and wildfires began to harm her family’s ranch and hotel business in southeastern Montana.

In 2020, she joined 16 other young people in Montana to file a lawsuit against the state for violating their constitutional rights to a clean and healthful environment by contributing to climate change through its continued extraction of fossil fuels.

In August 2023, the judge in the case ruled in favor of the youth. (The state is expected to appeal.)

Held was only 18 when the lawsuit was filed. Now 22, she recently graduated from Colorado College and has joined the Peace Corps.

Yale Climate Connections spoke with Held about growing up on her family’s ranch, how climate change is already damaging her family’s way of life, and why she got involved in the case.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Yale Climate Connections: Can you tell us about your family’s ranch and what it was like growing up on it?

Rikki Held: On our ranch we have the Powder River bordering one end, and by the river, there are cottonwood trees. And then we have kind of a valley of different fields that we raise crops on, and then we have the hills, and the hills are covered in pine trees and sandstone hills with shale and clinker on top. I grew up having the whole ranch as a space I could go out on, play in the river, ride horses, and go up into the hills on four-wheelers with my dogs.

And I grew up helping with the ranching operations. My dad would send my brother and I off into the hills to gather cattle or help with maintenance, fencing, helping around the barnyard with chickens, or cleaning motel rooms, or watching the office in town. I started haying when I was 12, so I was always very involved in that life, and it was just a really great place to grow up.

YCC: How is climate change affecting your ranch, and how did you start connecting the changes you saw to climate change?

Held: Even when I was little, I’d go out and follow the hydrologists who were studying the Powder River around. And then started learning more about science and learning about global processes and climate change. And then I started connecting that with the impacts I’ve seen on my ranch and the changes I’ve seen over the years. Those impacts include wildfires, drought, water variability, less snowpack, and some floods when there are higher spring temperatures and quick melting and runoff. And it includes extreme weather events such as stronger windstorms and hail that damages roofs and crops. Or when wildfires take out power lines, that affects our ability to pump water up to the tanks and the hills to water our cattle. And with drought, [cattle] have to travel farther between grass to get enough feed. So those things all kind of work together.

[For the Broadus Motels], hunting season is our biggest season, but we’ve seen changes in wildlife, and we’re not really seeing nearly the reservations being made for the fall, so we’re worried about that now. The Yellowstone flooding closed highways and affected our motel business. Wildfires close highways.

The 2012 Ash Creek fire was a huge fire that affected us. We didn’t have electricity for about a month. And I was younger, but still just remember [being] in our house, and in the dark, and thinking about things like how to get the toilet flushed, seeing my dad so worried about our cattle and being able to get water to them without electricity. And even when something like that happens, and even when there’s smoke in the air, you still have to carry on and keep trying to protect your livestock. And it’s really pretty worrisome.

In the summer of ‘21, there were air quality alerts on our phones all the time. I was working on a fencing project and cleaning motel rooms that summer. About half the days were smoky, and you have to be outside working. And I was just walking outside the motel and there was ash falling from the sky, and it was just kind of surreal.

First learning about climate change, it seemed like something more on the other side of the world, with polar bears, or glaciers melting, or sea level rise affecting coastal communities and islands. And it seemed a little more abstract and farther away — still a huge issue — but when I started recognizing these impacts on my home, it just made it a lot more personal. And you can see those changes over time, especially when it so closely affects your businesses, and animals, and crops.

And being from a ranching community, you see these impacts. Some of the things — like smoke in the air is obvious — but when you rely on the land for your livelihood, that is pretty scary. And so those kinds of worries are always in mind, but you still have to keep going and carry on with your daily tasks.

And I guess the ranching perspective isn’t talked about as much with climate conversations, but I think it’s really important because even if ranchers aren’t talking about climate change, we’re all still seeing these changes happening to our land, and that affects our livestock, and crops, and our livelihoods.

YCC: How did you decide to go to the courts to push for change?

Held: These events happen over and over, and all the time. And knowing about climate change, and how that exacerbates these impacts — makes things like wildfires more frequent and severe, and there’s a longer fire season, and warmer temperatures overall, there’s more drought — and knowing that we have control over some part of that, and this is human-caused climate change is frustrating. Because we’ve known about this for half a century.

And I got involved because of my interest in environmental science. And I felt like this case was perfect with our constitution and the wording in it, and myself and my fellow plaintiffs, there are 16 of us, we all just love our state and want to help protect it.

Read: Inside the unexpectedly wild landmark Montana youth climate trial

And youth are bringing this because we’re disproportionately impacted by climate change. I’m 22 now, but young people can’t vote, don’t have a say in the legislature, and don’t really have a say in government and the system, so we have to go through the courts because there are three branches of government and the courts can declare some actions unconstitutional.

YCC: How did testifying make you feel?

Held: We’d been leading up to this trial for three years, and it was all coming down to one point, and I was really grateful to be up there and get to tell my story and have the chance to have it matter — because we’ve known about this for so long, and there’s been so many stories, and people are already being affected. And mine is just one story to add to the mix, but it’s one that could have some impact on the court because I’m able to speak. And other Montana kids have said that my fellow plaintiffs and I are speaking for them, and people around the world have reached out to me, thanking us for doing this.

But before getting up on the stand, I wanted the state to know, and the court to know, that we need to take responsibility for our own actions. One of [the state] arguments was that this is a global issue and we’re kind of stuck with what we got, but I don’t think that’s true. I think that we need to take responsibility for our own actions and look at all the possibilities moving forward. So those were kind of the things I was thinking about going up.

Read: The six big surprises in the Montana youth climate trial

I got emotional on the stand, talking about my ranch and the changes I’ve seen, and feeling frustrated because my state is taking actions that impact my family, me, my community, and the whole state, and outside of the state, too. It was really frustrating that we had to be up here telling these stories when we’ve known since at least the 1960s, and Montana’s known. And we had a slideshow of images, and so seeing images of my ranch, and seeing things like air quality alerts that I’ve seen over and over, it kind of sunk in.

And sometimes these events happen so much, that you just have to keep going with life. But when you let it all sink in, it’s just overwhelming because we have control over this.

One thing I thought was really great about this case was we had these personal stories but then also the science to back it up. And a lot of the science was able to be presented to the court and put into evidence, which was really exciting. And that was the first time, I believe, for getting a lot of the climate science heard in court and to have it on the record. Because in day-to-day talking, or rhetoric, or in decision making, you can kind of say whatever you want, but when we’re listening to the best available science and to these experts and what they know, you can’t argue with that. Judge Seeley was very intent and really listened and asked questions throughout the whole trial. So to have that in the court was great.

And just one thing specifically the experts talked about in the science was this goal of getting to 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. And we already know that we’re over that, and we can’t have any more, and we need action now. We should have had it in the past, but setting that deadline and holding governments accountable and making this systematic change is really important. So that’s why I was excited about it.

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