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Climate Warrior: Taleah Hernandez seeks a better future

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | September 7, 2023 12:00 AM

Taleah Hernandez is optimistic that Montana will live up to its constitutional promise of a “clean and healthful environment” for its citizens – especially in the wake of last month’s Held v. Montana ruling.

Hernandez, who grew up in Polson and currently lives in Bozeman, was one of 16 youth plaintiffs in the case, which argued that aspects of Montana law undermine that constitutional right. Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Kathy Seeley found in favor of the plaintiffs in a 103-page ruling issued Aug. 14.

Taleah, the daughter of Rosemary Hickey, is a graduate of Polson High School and is studying animal science at Montana State University. She comes from a family of environmental activists. Her father is Cesar Hernandez, who worked with the Montana Wilderness Association and Montana Environmental Information Center, among other environmental organizations, and her half-brother, Shiloh Hernandez, was involved earlier in the Held v. Montana case as an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. Her half-sister, Hannah, was most recently an AmericCorps volunteer with the Flathead Lakers.

“One day I was visiting Helena with my family and my brother told me about this case and I was like, ‘Is there any way I could join and be part of this?’”

She was 16 when the case was first filed in March 2020 – just before the COVID pandemic struck. The plaintiffs – who ranged from 2 to 18 at the time, “were supposed to all meet each other right off the bat, but it’s taken us three years to all be together,” she said in a recent interview.

Most of them she met in Helena during the trial in June. All come from diverse backgrounds and different parts of Montana. “But I know that we're all really devoted to protecting this world that we live on – and our inspiration, among many other things, came from seeing our state of Montana being harmed by wildfires and other events.”

The lawsuit contends that current state laws undermine the state constitution, authored and ratified in 1972, that provides that citizens have the right to a “clean and healthful environment.” The two laws challenged by the lawsuit focus on limitations the state legislature has imposed on the Montana Environmental Policy Act that prevent state agencies from considering the impact of greenhouse gas emissions when permitting new energy developments.

The first MEPA amendment, passed in 2011, prevented MEPA reviews from considering “regional, national or global” environmental impacts. The second, passed in 2023, barred courts from being able to “vacate, void, or delay” permits or authorizations for proposed projects for reasons related to climate change.

After hearing testimony from 10 of the plaintiffs and their 10 expert witnesses, ranging from leading climate scientists to mental health professionals, Judge Seeley heard from an economist who spoke on behalf of the state, and representatives from the Department of Environmental Quality.

The judge ruled in favor of the youngsters, writing that the the MEPA limitation “is unconstitutionally contributing to the depletion and degradation of Montana’s environment and natural resources.” Her ruling also challenges the State’s contention that Montana contributes little to the climate crisis.

"In terms of per capita emissions, Montana's consumption of fossil fuels is disproportionately large and only five states have greater per capita emissions,” she wrote.

She also described the barriers to implementing renewable energy systems in the state as “not technical or economic, but social and political. Such barriers primarily result from government policies that slow down and inhibit the transition to renewables, and laws that allow utilization of fossil fuel development and preclude a faster transition to a clean, renewable energy system."

Climate change close to home

Hernandez said she’s seen the effects of climate change in the Mission Valley. A family friend lost her home and vineyard to the Boulder 2700 fire in 2021, and the blaze was not far from her mom’s home on Fulkerson Lane.

“So that fire was something that I witnessed very close up and personal,” she said. “And I'm sure you know as well as I do that driving up the east side, you can still see burnt remains of houses and all of the damage it's done.”

She also experienced smoke from last summer’s Elmo fire that consumed more than 21,000 acres and forced evacuations along the West Shore and Lake Mary Ronan.

She’s been in Bozeman for most of this summer and didn’t experience firsthand the fires that burned near Niarada, Arlee and west of Ronan. She did, however, notice the diminished lake level, which is considered by many to have been caused by upstream drought and a hasty snowmelt, brought about by above-average spring temperatures.

While she agrees that fire has long been part of the ecosystem, she challenges those who believe the uptick in fires across the West is unrelated to the increased carbon in the atmosphere, caused by human activity.

“The amount of fires that we've had recently just keeps increasing and the severity is getting worse,” she says. “And I know that if I talk with my friends I'm seeing so many more fires in our valley compared with when I was younger.”

Her observations were affirmed by five days of testimony during the June trial by experts who “built the bones, the structure, the scientific foundation of our case and allowed our case to have scientific standing that could not be dismissed in any way.”

She also pointed out that the 10 expert witnesses all donated their time, while the one expert witness called by the State, an economist with the Hoover Institution, charged $500 an hour.

The 10 plaintiffs who testified, including Hernandez, offered a more emotional take on the effects of climate change now, and in the future.

“I think my favorite part was definitely listening to the plaintiffs and seeing that engagement between our lawyers and our plaintiffs. But it was also really interesting to hear the experts speak because they have immeasurable experience and they were so, so wonderful to donate their time to our case.”

While she’s enjoyed support from family, friends, co-workers and other plaintiffs, Hernandez says she’s been hesitant to discuss the case in Lake County, where “we have some pretty contrary, pretty opposing views.”

Preparing for the next step

Held v. Montana marks the first climate case to actually land before a judge in the United States, a fact Hernandez attributes to the authors of the 1972 state constitution, who “really set us up for success because they had recognized Montana, being under the control of corporations for so long, and especially mining companies, and they decided to take a stand against that.”

Other youth climate-change cases filed in Hawaii and against the federal government are also headed to the courtroom in the coming year.

Hernandez anticipates that the State will appeal Judge Seeley’s ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, which means the plaintiffs and their attorneys have more work to do.

“I think we might also have a lot of work in encouraging Montana to commit to climate plans and to have those climate plans play out in real time and not be like 10 years in the future,” she says.

But it’s worth it, she believes, to ensure a better future for her generation, and the next.

“We want to be able to see the glaciers in Glacier National Park. We want to be able to enjoy the wild lands around us,” she says. “We don't want to live in a world that's on fire.”

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