Expert Cites Montana’s ‘Incredible’ Renewable Energy Potential, Teenage Plaintiffs Mourn Inaction as Climate Trial Hits Halfway Point

Friday marked plaintiffs’ final opportunity to present witnesses in youth-led lawsuit Held v. Montana

Lander Busse in Kalispell on May 3, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

HELENA – Plaintiffs in a first-of-its kind youth climate lawsuit sought to illustrate both the feasibility of transitioning Montana to fossil fuel-free energy sources and the physical, emotional and societal dangers of a “business as usual” approach to climate policy in the fifth day of the Held v. Montana bench trial. 

Friday was the plaintiffs’ final opportunity to present expert witness testimony before the state will summon its witnesses to foreground its arguments. Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley also heard from two of the youth plaintiffs, Olivia Vesovich and Lander Busse. Like their 14 co-plaintiffs, Vesovich and Busse allege that the state is violating their constitutional right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting fossil fuel energy sources.

Mark Jacobson, director of Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program, pulled upon his expertise in civil engineering, environmental engineering and atmospheric science to lay out a roadmap that would decarbonize the state’s energy grid by 2050 — though the ideal timeline would be closer to 2035, according to the report. The plan calls for building out more wind, solar and battery projects and using existing hydropower generation to meet the state’s energy needs. 

Drawing from an analysis he completed in 2022, Jacobson argued that Montana has more than enough renewable energy — wind in particular — to provide for its energy needs. He said only Alaska and Texas have a stronger wind energy resource than Montana.

Jacobson also argued that making that transition would result in cheaper, less polluting energy sources for Montana. By using available storage technology and grid interconnections with other renewable generation in places such as Washington, Idaho and Canada, “it’s very easy to keep the grid stable in Montana,” he said. 

“Montana has so much renewable energy potential, it’s incredible,” Jacobson continued, arguing that the only reasons Montana hasn’t adopted a fully renewable portfolio is a lack of policies to promote clean energy and a legacy of investment in fossil fuel infrastructure. 

Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, arrive at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023 for the first day of hearings in the trial. | Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Jacobson also asserted that, given the increasingly competitive prices for solar and wind generation, a transition to carbon-free energy will be cheaper for energy consumers than the coal and gas-fired power that’s currently favored by state policymakers.

“About 10.5% of all energy in Montana is used just to mine, transport and refine fossil fuels,” he added. “We don’t need to do that when we have clean renewable energy like wind, water and solar. Wind comes right to the [turbine]; solar comes right to the rooftop.”

Jacobson’s testimony also highlighted a handful of emissions-free technologies gaining a foothold in consumer markets such as heat pumps, induction stoves and electric vehicles. Such technologies are more efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts, he argued. 

During cross-examination Mark Stermtiz, an attorney for the state, suggested that switching to an electric vehicle might be cost-prohibitive for some Montanans, or run counter to their personal preferences.

Jacobson countered that the lifetime of your typical car is 15 years and he’s calling for a phased, not immediate, transition to EVs. If consumers transition to EVs, he said, they’ll save money over the long-term as production ramps up and an economy-of-scale dynamic takes hold. EV drivers save a considerable amount of money if a comparison is made between the electricity charging costs and the cost of filling a vehicle’s tank with gasoline, he added.

Like another expert witness for the plaintiffs, pediatrician Lori Byron, Jacobson also touched upon the public health impacts associated with fossil fuel emissions. He said that projecting forward to 2050 in a “business as usual” scenario, there are estimated to be about 130 premature deaths in Montana due to fossil fuel- and biofuel-related air pollution.

Following Jacobson’s testimony, the plaintiffs’ attorneys called Vesovich to the stand, a 20-year-old college student from Missoula. Vesovich described for the court the impact of climate change on her physical health and the anxiety and sadness she wrestles with as a result of her experience of climate change.

When she was in seventh grade, Vesovich was prescribed an inhaler for exercise-induced asthma. She said her asthma isn’t just exercised-induced anymore, though. On particularly smoky days — which the Missoula Valley experiences frequently in the summer —  she said she feels as if she’s suffocating if she’s outside for too long. Her limit is about 30 minutes before she has the panic-inducing experience of being unable to breathe, she said.

Vesovich, an art student and aspiring teacher, also spoke about what she described as the “greatest sadness of her life” — her recognition that she may not be a mother because she fears conditions will only worsen in the future.

“My family is one of the most important parts of my life. Knowing that I may not start a family of my own — it breaks my heart, it really does,” she said.

Judge Kathy Seeley speaks during a hearing in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse on June 12, 2023. Thom Bridge, Independent Record

When asked what she’s seeking from the court, Vesovich drew in a shaky breath, turned to look at Seeley and said, “I”m asking the state to uphold our constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.” She’s also asking, she said, that the court seriously consider the testimony of her co-plaintiffs and the expert witnesses who’ve testified over the course of the week.

Keeping consistent with its strategy, the state’s attorneys did not cross-examine Vesovich, nor Busse, whose testimony closed the day’s proceedings.

Children born today are projected to experience seven times the extreme weather events compared to adults, according to the plaintiffs’ next witness, Lise Von Susteren, a psychiatrist who has authored books on climate and mental health. Living with the uncertainty presented by such disruption exacts a mental toll that manifests in both post-traumatic responses and what Van Susteren has dubbed pre-traumatic stress, or the “inchoate sense that in the future bad things are going to happen.”

Reading material from a 2017 report appearing in the American Psychological Association, Van Susteren asserted that “climate impacts may have long-term and even permanent effects, such as changing the developmental potential and trajectory of a child.” She also read material from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report asserting that children are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, which may have long-lasting effects and influence their adult functioning.

Part of what makes climate change so harmful for children is the likelihood they’ll experience recurrent periods of distress and loss, said Van Susteren, who co-founded the Climate Psychiatry Alliance.

“When the exposure to those events are repeated … that’s where you find the most stress and the most physical and psychological harm,” she said.

Van Susteren then outlined the myriad ways the alignment of these situations can manifest. Hotter temperatures have been correlated with an increase in violence at the individual and group level, she said, and researchers have established a relationship between suicide and drought by examining how the two have risen together among farmers in India and ranchers in western Australia.

“There’s something peculiar associated [with] drought, and that is the despair that comes from looking up at the sky day after day and not seeing any of those rains — and knowing that, day by day, the consequences are going to get worse,” she said. 

Climate scientist Cathy Whitlock testified to the impacts of climate change in Montana during Held v. Montana on June 13, 2023. | Micah Drew

Earlier in the week, earth scientist Cathy Whitlock and lead author of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment explained how climate change is appearing in Montana, including hotter, drier summer months, lower summer streamflows and more frequent droughts. 

Lander Busse, an 18-year-old Kalispell resident who recently graduated from high school, described his family’s love for outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing during his testimony. Those activities are less available to his family as streamflows shift and increasing wildfire smoke changes hunters’ windows for pursuing big game, he said. Pervasive smoke generates in him a “weird post-apocalyptic feeling,” he said, adding that he’s started to refer to wildfire season as Montana’s “fifth season.”

Busse said his feelings about climate change are magnified by his love for Montana and his frustration that policymakers have failed to implement solutions that are within reach.

“We could be having a much different conversation [with] Montana as a leader,” he said. “I don’t know how you can sit in this courtroom and listen to everything that is put on display and not have a semblance of regret, or even responsibility, to get up and fix these things that we have been told, firsthand, can be fixed.” 

Lawyer Thane Johnson representing the State of Montana during the Held v. Montana trial on June 13, 2023. | Micah Drew

Starting Monday, the defense will have an opportunity to call its witnesses to the stand to more fully establish its legal position. The state is expected to argue that Montana’s contribution to global emissions is small in the global scheme and that there are no legal remedies available to the plaintiffs that could bring emissions down to levels that would correct the harms they’ve reported.

According to the state’s attorneys, one of the expert witnesses who provided written testimony to the court will not be present at the hearing next week. Climatologist Judith Curry, who had been expected to argue that climate change is a result of natural variability rather than human activity, will not be testifying.

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