Interview with expert witness, Steven Running, in Montana children’s climate lawsuit

Dr. Steven Running stands before a tree.

Dr. Steven Running

Dr. Steven Running is a Professor Emeritus of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences at the University of Montana. Running received a Ph.D. (1979) in Forest Ecology from Colorado State University. His primary research interest is the development of global and regional ecosystem biogeochemical models integrating remote sensing with bioclimatology and terrestrial ecology. He has published over 270 scientific articles and two books. Dr. Running shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a chapter Lead Author for the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr. Running is an elected Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and is designated a Highly Cited Researcher by the Institute for Scientific Information. In the popular press, his essay in 2007, “The 5 Stages of Climate Grief” has been widely quoted.

Steve responded to a set of questions in writing for this interview.

Tell me about the court case and the role you played?

I just served as Expert Witness in the Held vs Montana Childrens’ climate lawsuit that has been in the news recently.

This case, featuring 16 youth Plaintiffs, aged from 5 to 22, was suing the state of Montana for not providing a clean and healthful environment as promised in the Montana state Constitution. Montana state government has routinely granted permits for coal mining, gas and oil leases and fossil fuel projects with no evaluation of the climate consequences.

The legal team representing these youth,  Our Childrens’ Trust, , “ is a non-profit public interest law firm that provides strategic, campaign-based legal services to youth from diverse backgrounds to secure their legal rights to a safe climate. We work to protect the Earth’s climate system for present and future generations by representing young people in global legal efforts to secure their binding and enforceable legal rights to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate, based on the best available science”.

These cases are based on “public trust” legal foundations that we as citizens can expect certain rights, particularly for clean air, clean water, a stable climate etc. from our governments.

A group of 7 or 8 people walking together down a sidewalk.

A group of young people (shown walking to the courthouse on the trial’s first day) sued the state of Montana for failing to protect the environment for their future. They won. (Source and credit: Robin Loznak, Our Children’s Trust.)

How did you become the scientific expert in the case? Have you testified before?

I have been both an IPCC chapter author, and a National Climate Assessment chapter lead author, so have been recruited as an Expert Witness in this and similar climate trials.

Did you have to give research papers or data sources as evidence?

I have learned some strategies for court testimony that may be helpful to other ESA scientists that might be part of climate trials. First work from prominent refereed sources that have already assessed and summarized individual research papers. I used IPCC reports for global material, National Climate Assessments for national material, and state climate assessments for state level details. Find clear simple graphics, such as from the Global Carbon Project, or Climate Central, that re-graph raw data for visuals.

For example, most IPCC and journal graphics are too complicated and information dense for the courtroom. Comprehensive literature reviews or citing latest journal papers that we might do for scientific talks are NOT what to do in court.

 Make your answers in court clear and concise, as lead by your attorney, this is not the place for academic lectures and detailed explanations we might do in a classroom. Make clear your domain of expertise, and do not get lured into answering speculative questions outside your expertise that opposing attorneys can exploit to assault your credibility as an expert. For climate details, make clear when you are referring to actual observations versus climate models. Also, it can be tricky to explain levels of confidence as used by the IPCC for summary factual statements.

Would you encourage other ecologists to get involved as expert witnesses?

I encourage ESA scientists to participate in these legal proceedings, the world desperately needs our expertise, and the climate clock is ticking. We typically work pro bono, for free, to enhance our credibility, and make clear our motivation. We are not just doing this to earn some quick money. And if you do take up this challenge, I hope these tips are helpful.


More reading

Kids Sued Montana over Climate Change and Won