Will Judges Have the Last Word on Climate Change?

(Bloomberg) -- In the fight against climate change, one tool is proving increasingly popular: litigation. From the U.S. to India, activists, governments and concerned citizens are suing at a breakneck pace. Supporters want the courts to force oil companies, energy users and governments to pay for past harms and avert future threats. Opponents say climate change policy is a matter for national governments and international treaties, not a handful of judges.

1. Why turn to the courts?

Activists and environmentally minded lawyers are seeking new ways to use the law to slow global warming and assign responsibility for the resulting economic damages. They’ve been given new urgency by President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Some believe courts are uniquely suited to impose controls where legislatures and government agencies have failed.

2. Who are the defendants?

In the U.S., it’s mostly the big oil companies, but energy producers and state and federal agencies have also been sued. Governments are the targets in much of the rest of the world, including Pakistan, India and Uganda. In Europe, local and national governments have been sued because their clean-air plans fail to meet minimum European Union requirements. These include emissions caps that target older, less efficient diesel cars that are more harmful to the environment.

Will Judges Have the Last Word on Climate Change?

3. What’s the argument?

Some claim the oil and gas industry created a “public nuisance” — an illegal threat to community welfare. Others target their products as unreasonably dangerous to the planet’s health. In the U.S., state officials have claimed that the oil corporations knew about the dangers of climate change for decades and schemed to hide the information. Many cases are based on the claim that the health of the environment is a public trust, held by the government for the benefit of future generations.

4. So it’s about human rights?

Yes, human-rights arguments are a small but growing approach. Plaintiffs make the case that climate change has threatened or taken away the basic rights to shelter, health, food, water and even life. Arguments range from Colombian children’s claims that the deforestation of the Amazon deprives them of a healthy environment, to the assertion of hundreds of elderly Swiss women that their country has not done enough to protect them from rising global temperatures.

5. How have governments responded?

They argue that judges should not be setting government policies. And they often say that the social and economic benefits from pollution sources outweigh the environmental concerns. That was the case South Africa made when it was challenged for building a coal-fired power station, since 16 percent of the population still has no access to electricity.

6. What about energy companies?

They point to the vast economic benefits created by their products. And they say that individuals, industries and governments willingly contributed to climate change through their use of fossil fuels. They deny seeking to mislead consumers about global warming and accuse plaintiffs’ lawyers of demonizing them in search of a big bonanza.

7. How have the cases fared?

Environmentalists have won major cases against the Netherlands, Colombia and South Africa. And pending suits have changed behaviors. Germans, for example, are avoiding buying diesel cars since more of them might be banned from cities that fail to meet standards for particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. Stuttgart became the second city to prohibit older diesel vehicles in its town center, following Hamburg, the first municipality to impose a partial ban.

8. How have lawsuits fared in the U.S.?

Badly so far. A federal judge threw out a suit by New York City against five of the world’s biggest oil companies, after a similar ruling on claims by San Francisco and Oakland, California. But the Trump administration has been unsuccessful in derailing a suit brought by youths who claim the government’s role in causing climate change is a violation of their Constitutional rights.

9. Why do environmentalists keep trying?

They’re seeking their tobacco moment. Anti-smoking activists and the families of cancer-stricken smokers lost claims against Big Tobacco for decades in the U.S. before the 1990s. A group of state attorneys general turned the tide by teaming up with top private lawyers to take on the industry in state courts. The victory resulted in settlements totaling $246 billion and permanent changes in the sale and marketing of cigarettes. It’s a model that climate change activists would love to duplicate.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg coverage of suits can be found at Climate Changed.
  • The National Association of Manufacturers has an Accountability Project tracking environmental suits against U.S. industries.
  • Our Children’s Trust tracks young people’s environmental suits around the world.
  • The New Yorker profiled the Oregon teenagers suing over climate change.
  • Bloomberg graphic tracks the growing number of lawsuits.
  • Bloomberg QuickTakes on climate change and how a German case could accelerate diesel’s end.

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