US Reporter

How Rikki Held Fought the Climate Crisis

Rikki Held
Image Commercially Licensed from: Deposit Photos

After raging down from the arid hills, the flash flood swept over the road in front of Rikki Held home in eastern Montana. Held and her father were watching the torrent from the top of the driveway when the sound of the rushing water drowned out all other sounds from the late June afternoon.

The area beside the mailbox, which she had passed a thousand times or more on her way into and out of the house and where she had waited waiting for the school bus as a child, had changed into an unfamiliar body of water. Held, 22, and her father have never witnessed something similar. The scenario seemed appropriate, as early summer fires still billowed smoke into the air after an extremely scorching spring. Held had just returned from the state capital after testifying in the first adolescent climate case in the country to go to trial. It was unclear when the court would deliver her decision; it may take a few weeks to many months.

Held had a lot going on the rest of the summer: she was preparing to assist the hydrologists who visit every year to study the Powder River that flows through her family’s ranch—the same ones who first sparked her interest in science—and a documentary on the case is being made with her as the main character. Held had recently graduated from Colorado College with a degree in environmental science. However, despite all the activity, she couldn’t help but think about the trial’s upcoming verdict. The culmination of her efforts since she agreed to join the case at 18 to sue her state of Montana for breaching her constitutional right to a clean environment by willfully causing climate change was reached here.  

When Held learned about the lawsuit, she had just begun her freshman year of college. She called the plaintiff, Our Children’s Trust, and asked to join. She was the lone plaintiff of legal age when the law firm contacted her and requested if they could use her name to bring the lawsuit. She also had a magnetic individuality as a young woman living the life of old Montana while placing her sights on the advanced, scientific future, even though the company probably didn’t mention this aspect. Held did not pause. Naturally,” she replied. It was filed on March 13, 2020, as Held v. Montana. 

Would she have done it if she had known at the time that the case would consume nearly four years of her life, that the entire world would be watching, that her father would be concerned that the state might target the ranch in retaliation and that her name would serve as a permanent legal reference in one of the most significant environmental rulings of our time?

Without a doubt. She is also eager to point out that she only contributed what the other 15 juvenile litigants did, which may be because she is more reserved and grounded than the typical 22-year-old or because it is evident that the spotlight is not her thing. She explains from her ranch in Broadus, “I’m just one little part of everything. “My name is much larger than I am on it. It stands for the concept as a whole.

Held is a fifth-generation Montanan, as is her twin brother. Held’s great-grandfather ran a little coal mine. The Broadus, Texas, motels that Held’s family currently owns and operates were finally purchased by her grandmother, who had grown up in the Great Depression on a sheep ranch. Since their father purchased the family ranch when they were four years old, Held and her brother have worked it. Even as little children, they would ride their horses to gather cattle from the sandstone cliffs and pine-covered slopes. They looked after the horses their father trained, lambs, chickens, ducks, goats, turkeys, dogs, and cats. All that gave Held a sense that she was a part of something bigger. And there was always a solution if one needed to “get a tool,” as her father would remark.

The moment Rikki Held won

HELD TRIED TO KEEP ONE WORD IN MIND AS SHE WALKED INTO THE COURTROOM ON THE FIRST DAY OF THE TRIAL ON JUNE 12 — THROUGH THE SINGLE SMALL PROTEST AROUND THE BLOCK, NATIONAL MEDIA FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES TO NICKELODEON, AND THE CROWDS OF PEOPLE WHO CAME IN SUPPORT. As the first expert witness, Mae Nan Ellingson, the youngest delegate at the 1972 convention and had assisted in drafting the language for the right to a clean environment into the state’s Constitution, would speak on enduring Montana values. The first plaintiff, who was underage, would then take the witness stand: Held. She was hesitant to share her tale because she was more interested in the science about to be presented; after all, those were the objective facts that needed to be considered when making policy.

She had a lot to say while she was testifying. Growing up in a landlocked state, she never saw polar bears or rising sea levels when she first learned about climate change. But after that, things began to happen at home. The family automobile was damaged by increasingly severe hail storms twice, and the amount of snow that accumulated so high that they had to shovel out the front door like their father used to did not last as long. The cattle perished from malnutrition following the enormous fire from an exposed coal seam, which destroyed their pasture, knocked down miles of powerlines, and left them without light for days. She only had twenty minutes on the witness stand, twenty minutes to say something important to the judge, twenty minutes to the state, and twenty minutes to explain what was at risk of dictating our behavior. She kept reminding herself to take responsibility.

Nearly eight weeks later, on August 14, Held had just finished her research internship and was on her way home from camping in the Colorado mountains. She had never been to Glacier National Park, so she needed wifi to obtain a permit for a planned hiking trip there. In the parking lot of a Starbucks, she opened her computer, and there was an email at the top of her inbox: the decision had been made. The kid triumphed. At 10:30 a.m., the plaintiffs and attorneys began a Zoom session to explain what it all meant. It was 10:33. The timing was exact.

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