U.S. Urges Reversal of 2d Circuit Global Warming Nuisance Decision

The federal government (Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned company), last week urged the Supreme Court to overturn a court of appeals decision that allowed Connecticut and several other states to move forward in their suit seeking greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance theory. American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S., brief filed 8/24/10).

Readers may recall from earlier posts that in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 2009 WL 2996729 (2nd Cir. 9/21/09),  two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued several electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources. The plaintiffs' theory is that carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the earth's atmosphere, and that as a result of this trapped heat, the earth's temperature has risen over the years and will continue to rise in the future. Pointing to an alleged “clear scientific consensus” that global warming has already begun to alter the natural world, plaintiffs predicted that it “will accelerate over the coming decades unless action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.”

When thinking about "global climate" changes, MassTortDefense has always been sobered by the fact that humans have been trying to measure temperature consistently only since the1880s, during which time advocates think the world may have warmed by about +0.6 °C -- which is less than the margin of error on our ability to measure the Earth's temperature!

Anyway, plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. 406 F. Supp. 2d 265.

On appeal to the Second Circuit, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, the two judges (Justice, then-Judge Sotomayor had to drop out) held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced by other federal law.

In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract.  Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated. The Supreme Court has further stated that the asserted injury must be actual or imminent, certainly impending and immediate --not remote, speculative, conjectural, or hypothetical. The court rejected defendants challenge that the contentions of future injury at some unspecified future date are not the kind of “imminent” injury required. The court also gave short shrift to the argument that plaintiffs could neither isolate which alleged harms will be caused by defendants' emissions, nor allege that such emissions would alone cause any future harms.

As we noted here, several defendants have filed a cert petition that raises the important, recurring question whether states and private plaintiffs have standing to seek, and whether federal common law provides authority for courts to impose, a non-statutory, judicially created regime for setting caps on greenhouse gas emissions based on vague and indeterminate nuisance concepts. It also asks the Court to decide whether judges, in addition to Congress and the EPA, may regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the behest of states and/or private parties and, if so, under what standards. Under the Second Circuit's ruling, a single judge could set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue. Judges in subsequent cases could set different standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.

While the Second Circuit called this an ordinary tort suit, this litigation seeks to transfer to the judiciary nearly standard-less authority for some of the most important and sensitive economic, energy, and social policy issues presently before the country. Federal nuisance law is neither sufficiently developed nor sufficiently detailed to substitute for actual regulation. Thus, at stake is the financial health and security of numerous sectors of the economy. Indeed, virtually every entity and industry in the world is responsible for some emissions of carbon dioxide and is thus a potential defendant in climate change nuisance actions under the theory of this case. The threat of litigation, and the indeterminate exposure to monetary and injunctive relief that it entails, could substantially impede and alter the future investment decisions and employment levels of all affected industries, and ultimately every sector of the economy.


Now the government brief takes a different approach, asking the Court not to accept the case for full review, but rather to simply vacate the decision and direct the Second Circuit to reconsider two issues: whether the plaintiffs have standing to bring the lawsuit, and whether recent actions by the EPA  to regulate greenhouse gas emissions supplant the reason given by the Second Circuit for allowing the lawsuit to go forward.  Since the initial decision below, EPA has issued final rules establishing reporting requirements for major emitters of greenhouse gases; issued a finding that greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks endanger public health and welfare; and established new greenhouse gas emissions limits for cars and light trucks. In addition, EPA has signed off on a final rule requiring that additional categories of sources begin to track and report greenhouse gas emissions under EPA's earlier GHG reporting rule.  The Second Circuit decision was seemingly predicated on the "now-obsolete conclusion" that EPA had not taken action to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from stationary sources. 

The TVA brief also argues that  that the lower court should dismiss the case based on “prudential standing,” a narrower ground than the case or controversy argument of the other defendants.


 

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