Two Recent "Climate Change" Cases Ended

Two recent decisions continue the trend against plaintiffs in the climate change/public nuisance area. The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week declined the request by an Alaskan fishing village to overturn a lower court ruling that the Clean Air Act preempts a federal common law claim of public nuisance attributed to so-called global warming and climate change.  See Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., No. 12—1072 (cert. denied 5/20/13).

We have posted on this case before.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held in 2012 that the Clean Air Act, and Environmental Protection Agency regulatory actions taken under the statute, displace the common law claim that various energy producing companies should be liable for the cost of relocating the village to avoid flooding and coastal erosion.  The Ninth Circuit ruling relied on the Supreme Court's prior decision in American Electric Power Co. Inc. v. Connecticut, 131 S.Ct 2527 (2011), dealing with the possibility of injunctive relief; plaintiffs here failed in their petition to the Supreme Court seeking a ruling that the federal statute does not displace common law claims for damages.

The battle lines may now shift to state common law claims against various entities over greenhouse gas emissions.  Even in state court, plaintiffs will likely have difficulty showing that a defendant's actions caused any alleged climate changes, and that the changes somehow were the proximate cause of the damages alleged -- and then how to apportion damages in light of any others who might be similarly situated to named defendants.  Any such battle at the state level risks creation of a hodgepodge of decisions throughout the country about what constitutes a nuisance in this area and about what gas emission levels are or are not tortious.  All readers ought to have profound reservations about the notion, inherent in all private climate change litigation, that the tort system is capable of adjudicating rights and responsibilities on the subject of global warming.

In the other recent climate change suit, the Fifth Circuit affirmed earlier this month that the doctrine of res judicata barred a proposed class action claim for alleged global warming-related damage to property after Hurricane Katrina. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. 12-60291 (5th Cir. 5/14/13). We had posted on this one before also.  Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants' emissions had contributed to global warming, which somehow raised the temperature of the ocean, which somehow made hurricanes more powerful, which caused Hurricane Katrina to be more destructive to plaintiffs' property. After exhausting various unsuccessful complex appeals, the plaintiffs filed a new case with many of the same allegations. The lower court had earlier held that plaintiffs lacked standing, which barred this case. The district court also noted issues (again) with the statute of limitations; the political question doctrine; and on the merits. The Fifth Circuit heard oral arguments on the appeal of the dismissal of the second case, and affirmed that the earlier decision was final for the purposes of res judicata.


 

Ninth Circuit Hears Oral Argument in Climate Change Case

The Ninth Circuit recently heard oral argument in a potentially significant case raising climate change issues.  See Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 09-17490 (9th Cir.)(oral argument  11/28/11).

We have posted on this case before, in which the village of about 400 people alleged that, as a result of global warming, the Arctic sea ice that protects the Kivalina coast from storms has been diminished, and that resulting erosion requires relocation of the residents to another village. (The town of Kivalina is located at the tip of a six-mile-long barrier reef, about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska's northwest coast.) Plaintiffs sought damages under federal common law nuisance, state nuisance, and civil conspiracy theories. They alleged that defendants were a major part of the cause of excessive emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which plaintiffs claimed are causing the global warming.

The defendants properly noted that many of the questions raised by the plaintiffs in this suit were inherently political; there are no traditional judicial standards available to adjudicate such political issues. They also argued that plaintiffs lacked standing under Article III because the injury to the plaintiffs was not “fairly traceable” to the conduct of the defendants.

After the District Court dismissed the case, 663 F. Supp. 2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a global warming case brought by a number of states and land trusts that sought injunctive relief against utilities under the Clean Air Act.  See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011).  The Kivalina case is potentially significant as one of the first to apply and interpret the Supreme Court decision limiting climate change lawsuits under federal common law.
 

The plaintiffs in Kivalina argue that the AEP decision focused exclusively on injunctive relief and did not address damage claims under federal common law. Kivalina does not seek to set emissions caps. It seeks damages, they argued.  But that reading of the decision may overstate the importance of that fact; the Court focused on the issue of injunctive relief arguably because that was what was being sought by the states and land trusts.  Defendants argued that displacement of the federal common law applies to both injunctive and damages remedies.  When Congress crafted the regulatory framework establishing the Clean Air Act, it did not provide for any compensatory relief to an allegedly injured private party. Accordingly, a damages remedy should also be displaced.  Recognizing the nuisance theory in this context would enable a federal judge to substitute a different balancing of interests from the one made by the EPA, to which Congress assigned this function.


 

New Theory Emerges in Climate Change Litigation

Just as many eyes are focused on the climate change/global warming cases pending in the appellate courts, a group of activist environmentalists have enrolled new plaintiffs to bring an old legal theory into the climate change litigation mix. A case filed last week alleges that the atmosphere is a "public trust resource" and, as such, the government has a duty to act to protect it. See Loorz v. Jackson, No. CV11-2203 (N.D. Cal., 5/4/11).

Plaintiffs are youths, alleged to be "beneficiaries" of the "public trust," including the teenage head of the group, Kids v. Global Warming, which is also a named plaintiff. Defendants are the EPA and numerous federal agencies who allegedly could act to curb greenhouse gas emissions allegedly linked to global warming.

Plaintiffs' complaint contains the well-known litany of alleged effects of global warming, including rising seas, melting glaciers, warming oceans, changing precipitation, all as an alleged result of increasing CO2 levels.  It takes short term readings and phenomena and raises them to the level of global climactic changes, hypotheses into alleged scientific proof.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, on the theory that the atmosphere is a public trust; that under the public trust doctrine, the federal government has a fiduciary duty as trustee to protect the trust for the benefit of the benficiaries (plaintiffs); and that therefore the agencies should be ordered to act to reduce CO2 emissions by 6% a year beginning in 2013.

Thus, the claim moves beyond environmental statutes, such as the Clean Air Act, and tort doctrines such as public nuisance, both of which have been recognized as not applicable by most courts, to an even less applicable theory, the so-called public trust doctrine. This notion has a far more limited reach, with lakes and navigable streams being maintained for drinking, commerce, and recreation purposes under a public-trust doctrine -- or tidal and submerged lands not being given over to private ownership.

Media reports that similar lawsuits are being filed in several other courts, and that petitions for rulemakings by state administrative agencies will be filed in other states.

The cynical use of youthful plaintiffs (aren't we all "beneficiaries"?) may illustrate how clearly the environmental activists sees the challenges of persuading courts on the science and the law, that human emissions of carbon dioxide which comprises less than 0.04 percent of the atmosphere is somehow responsible for hurricanes and every other weather event we experience. 

Whatever the theory alleged, it seems likley that these cases will run headlong into the same issues that derail so much of the global warming agenda, the fact that these cases raise political questions that should be reserved for the political branches of government, not an inidvidual judge. Indeed, the legislative branch, acting within the confines of the common law public trust doctrine, is recognized in the calse law as the ultimate administrator of the trust and often is described as the ultimate arbiter of permissible uses of trust lands.


 

Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Second Circuit "Global Warming" Case

We have posted before about the climate change or so-called global warming litigation. Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in one of the seminal cases in this area, American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10).

Readers will recall that the issues include whether a cause of action to cap carbon dioxide emissions can be implied under federal common law; and whether claims seeking to cap carbon dioxide emissions based on a court's weighing of the potential risks of climate change against the utility of defendants' conduct can be adjudicated through judicially discoverable and manageable standards, and whether they could ever be resolved without  the policy determinations clearly of a kind judges should not be making. (Justice Sotomayor, on the panel below, was recused.)

Extended time was given. The Court did not seem persuaded by the arguments of the defendants and the Justice Department that the case should be thrown out on procedural  grounds.  But on the merits, there appeared to be much skepticism about how a district court could ever proceed to a final decision in these kinds of cases.  Counsel for plaintiffs, the six states, had great difficulty  describing how to get there from here, how to have a manageable lawsuit against a small group of greenhouse gas emitters (among the billions of sources), and one focused on alleged  emission-reduction technology that they supposedly should have used. Counsel could muster not a single example of a similar suit that had proceeded to resolution.

Justice Ginsburg observed that the relief sought sounds like "the kind of thing EPA does..... You are setting up a District Judge as a kind of ‘super EPA.’”  And the rest of the Court's traditionally liberal wing seemed to suggest that this was an issue for the EPA.  Justice Kagan suggested that the suit overlapped the typical work of regulatory agencies; Justice Breyer asked an interesting hypothetical about whether the trial court could impose a remedy that was in essence a per-ton tax on carbon emissions, and assuming the finding was that this would be cost-effective, it would lead to substitution, it would "actually bring about a world without global warming." Plaintiffs answered in the negative.  But if there is no "power to enter that order, which could be proved to be extremely effective, and least possible harm to the consumer, why does [the court] have the power to enter the order you want?"

Justice Scalia wondered about the slippery slope, and if this suit could proceed against a handful of utilities, why couldn't the states sue every farmer who owned a cow, or every home that emitted from their home HVAC system?

Justice Alito took another approach to the difficulties of the litigation, noting that if a certain reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is ordered, that will increase the cost of electricity by a certain amount, and that will produce certain consequential effects. It will result in the loss of a certain number of jobs; it will mean that consumers will have less money to spend on other products and services; it will mean that some people will not be able to have air conditioning in the summer. That will have health effects on the elderly and people with breathing issues.  "How is the district judge -- what standard does the district judge have to decide those" questions?

Counsel for defendants correctly noted that the states were in essence asking a judge to perform a legislative and regulatory function, and balance a set of issues that is among the most complex, multifaceted, and consequential of any policy issues now before the country.

Chief Justice Roberts observed that a central issue when dealing with global warming is that there are costs and benefits on both sides, and a policy maker has to determine how much to readjust the world economy to address the global warming.  There are inevitable trade-offs. "I think that's a pretty big burden to impose on a district court judge."

Good news for the defendants: none of the eight justices appeared to voice any significant support for the plaintiffs' position.

 

Showdown Over Regulation of Greenhouse Gas Looming in Congress

We have posted before about a number of issues related to greenhouse gas regulation and climate change litigation.  Now comes word that a potential showdown in the U.S. Senate over competing proposals to either strip the EPA of asserted authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or to delay the implementation of such rules has been put off until Senators return from their recess at the end of this month.

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans offered an amendment to the Small Business Reauthorization Act (S. 493) that would end all EPA authority to address emissions related to global climate change and block all current and future emissions rules. And the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 15 approved an identical, stand-alone measure (H.R. 910), which we have posted on before.  The committee vote was along party lines. Also in play is an alternative offered by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that would impose a two-year delay of enforcement of EPA's rules regarding power plants and other large emitting facilities. 

There is also speculation about other measures short of a complete ban on EPA regulation, including a  proposal to exempt the agricultural sector from EPA's greenhouse gas rules.   

All this may come to a head when the Senate reconvenes in April. Meanwhile in the litigation, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court last week (on behalf of Respondents New York, Connecticut, California, Iowa, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the city of New York) asking the Court to  to recognize the right of states to sue various power companies as contributors to global warming. American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S., brief filed 3/11/11).  The case is set for oral argument on April 19.

Legislation Proposed to Curb EPA Greenhouse Gas Authority

As we have noted in previous posts, one of the many important questions lurking in the climate change/global warning cases currently being litigated is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court. Should a single judge 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 standards for other utilities or industries, or even conflicting standards for these same utilities. At the sane time, many observers question whether the current EPA regulatory direction offers sufficient protection for the jobs and the still shaky economy.

A number of bills have been introduced that could affect this equation. The Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), last week spoke of draft legislation that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.  The Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 would bar the EPA from regulating the so-called greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act by precluding the agency from taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas due to concerns regarding possible climate change.

Joining in support of this approach were Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Senator Inhofe reportedly plans to introduce a Senate version of the bill soon. 

Already in the Senate, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) re-introduced the EPA Regulations Suspension Act of 2011 (S. 231) which would delay for two years EPA's greenhouse gas emissions rules covering stationary sources.  Co-sponsors include Democrats: Sens. James Webb (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), and Kent Conrad (N.D.).  Rockefeller's version would apparently continue to allow EPA regulation of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.  Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso introduced a more sweeping Senate bill (S. 228) that would reduce federal authority to regulate such emissions under not just the Clean Air Act, but also the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The White House announced last year that the President would veto efforts to curb EPA authority over these greenhouse gas emissions. But many have expressed concern that the EPA regulations could hurt job growth, particularly for heavy manufacturing states.
 


 

Climate Change Case Update

A quick update to one of the key climate change cases pending in the federal courts. Readers may recall that the U.S. Supreme Court announced late last year that it will indeed hear the challenge to a court of appeals decision allowing several states to pursue a public nuisance suit against various utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10).

Last week the federal government weighed in and asked the Court to overturn the court of appeals' decision in this public nuisance suit against American Electric Power Co. and other utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions, but on relatively narrow grounds. The brief filed by the Acting Solicitor General argues that the plaintiffs lacked “prudential standing” and that their suit should therefore be dismissed.  We have noted here before that a central issue is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court. Should a single judge 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 standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.  A second issue is whether controlling power plant emissions' alleged effects on the climate is a political question beyond the reach of the courts. Recall that the Southern District of New York dismissed the suit in 2005, holding that the claims represented a political question. Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 406 F. Supp. 2d 265.

The government position is that plaintiffs bring claims under the federal common law of public nuisance against six defendants alleged to emit greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. But if plaintiffs' theory is correct, virtually every person, organization, company, or government across the globe also emits greenhouse gases, and virtually everyone will also sustain climate-change-related injuries. Principles of prudential standing do not permit courts to adjudicate such generalized grievances absent statutory authorization, particularly because EPA, which is better-suited to addressing this global problem, has begun regulating greenhouse gases under the CAA. As a result, plaintiffs’ suits must be dismissed.  EPA began regulating greenhouse gas emissions from certain sources in January, although members of Congress are moving to delay or block EPA's authority to do so, which we will post on later this week.

The federal government brief concedes that plaintiffs have Article III standing based on their interest in preventing the loss of sovereign territory for which they are also the landowners.  It asks that the Court not decide whether plaintiffs’ suits are barred by the political question doctrine, although noting that this case does indeed raise separation-of powers concerns highlighted by the second and third factors used in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), to describe the political question doctrine: a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.

The AEP brief is available for interested readers.


 

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Greenhouse Gas Case

The U.S. Supreme Court announced earlier this month that it will indeed hear the challenge to a court of appeals decision allowing several states to pursue a public nuisance suit against various utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10).

Readers may recall the issues from previous posts.  Two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six 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. 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, 406 F. Supp. 2d 265, 268 (S.D.N.Y. 2005),  correctly held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. On appeal, 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, 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009), the court of appeals held that the district court, had 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. 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.

AEP and three other power companies filed a petition for writ of certiorari Aug. 2, asking the Supreme Court to review the decision. The federal government (Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned company), urged the Supreme Court to overturn this 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. A dozen states  joined the Administration, and a variety of amici, in urging the Supreme Court to review the decision by the Second Circuit.

One central issue is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court.  Should a single judge 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 standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.
A second issue is whether controlling power plant emissions is a political question beyond the reach of the courts.

Note that Justice Sotomayor was a member of the Second Circuit when it heard oral arguments in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co.  Thus it appears only eight justices will hear the case.
Justice Anthony Kennedy may turn out to be the pivotal vote in the case, based on his vote in Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S. Ct. 1438 (2007).  The Supreme Court may not be eager to see a flood of common law litigation against greenhouse gas sources.

  

Multiple States Urge Reversal of Second Circuit Greenhouse Gas Decision

A dozen states have joined the Administration, and a variety of amici, in urging the Supreme Court to review a decision by the Second Circuit which would permit a suit against various utilities in federal court over their greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174, (U.S., amicus brief filed 9/3/10).

As we have posted, the Second Circuit held in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 2009 WL 2996729 (2nd Cir. 9/21/09), that two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, could sue 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, 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 had 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.

This latest brief in support of review focuses on the issue whether claims seeking to cap defendants’ carbon dioxide emissions at “reasonable” levels, based on a court’s weighing of the potential risks of climate change against the socioeconomic utility of defendants’ conduct, could somehow be governed by “judicially discoverable and manageable standards” or could be resolved without initial policy determinations of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.  These amici argue that given that every industry, and indeed every living mammal, constantly emits CO2, such emissions cannot simply be banned outright, no matter what the harm to the environment. Someone has to make a policy determination as to how much is acceptable and how much is too much. That someone should not be the federal judiciary. The point at which the volume of CO2 emissions justifies regulation admits of no discernible, judicially manageable principle.

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.

The US government weighed in previously, taking 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.

Joining on the latest brief were Indiana, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming.

Think-Tank Report on Environmental Litigation Worth A Look

A new think-tank report discusses the evolution in environmental and toxic tort litigation. The Manhattan Institute Center for Legal Policy publishes reports and updates that shed light on the size, scope, and inner workings of what they call "America's lawsuit industry" at TrialLawyersInc.com.

The new report, "Un-natural Claims," discusses the trend to use litigation to supplant or supplement regulation and legislation of environmental and toxic hazards.  Because tort law is necessarily retrospective, not prospective (plaintiffs traditionally must show that they have actually been injured and that the party being sued caused the injury), and because it makes sense to prevent environmental injuries in advance, instead of addressing them after they occur, advanced economies have developed regulatory regimes that place boundaries around economic activities that risk generating environmental damage.

Nuisance suits, for example, do not manage environmental harms well. Injuries are sometimes too dispersed to be remedied by damage awards to individuals, and causation too speculative or remote to meet historical legal norms. Lay juries are generally ill-equipped to make scientific judgments on complex environmental questions, argues the report.  Yet, increasingly, plaintiffs and activists have sought to use tort law to supplant regulation, often by seeking broad injunctive relief. The report argues that such suits seek to circumvent statutory and regulatory schemes and turn the courts into alternative environmental regulators.

The report offers the recent global warming litigation as a dire example.  In such suits, activist groups—or state attorneys general seeking their support—are trying to make an end run around regulators or legislatures to achieve policy goals. The report warns that one should not assume that pecuniary motives are absent from such suits: in addition to earning themselves substantial publicity, the state AGs often receive the largesse of lawyers involved in the form of direct or in-kind campaign assistance; and trial lawyers get to enlist the state attorneys general to press for judicial rulings that would make future litigation more profitable. In some cases, they get hefty contingency fees for doing the states’ work.

Worth a look.

 

 

Climate Change Litigation Update

Latest round in the "global warming" litigation -- Coming as no surprise, a group of property owners asked the U.S. Supreme Court last week to address issues arising in the appeal of their climate change tort lawsuit.  The suit seeks to hold a group of energy companies liable for alleged hurricane damage to their properties.  See In re: Comer, No. 10-294 (U.S. petition for writ of mandamus filed 8/26/10). The causation allegation in this particular case is arguably even more attenuated than the long, convoluted causation chain in many other global warming cases; plaintiffs asserted that defendants' greenhouse gases didn't cause but contributed to global warming, which made the waters in the Gulf of Mexico warmer, which didn't create but made Hurricane Katrina more intense, which then caused their alleged property damage to be worse. That stands as perhaps the most attenuated, least supportable, causal link in tort history. 

The procedural history is fascinating.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the complaint in August, 2007 for lack of standing and as a non-justiciable political question. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 2007 WL 6942285 (S.D.Miss. 2007). The district court correctly held that tort suits against electric power companies and other alleged large greenhouse gas emitters should not proceed in federal court because, among many reasons,  climate change, and tort claims based on alleged climate change, is fraught with national political and policy considerations.

Plaintiffs appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed that decision in October, 2009.  But the defendants petitioned for a rehearing en banc, and the Circuit ordered en banc rehearing of the case. Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al., No. 07-60756 (5th Cir.). That vacated the panel opinion.

Then came a letter from the clerk noting the cancellation of en banc oral arguments. Apparently, since the en banc court was constituted, new circumstances had arisen that made it necessary for various judges to recuse, leaving only eight members of the court able to participate in the case. Consequently, said the clerk, the en banc court had lost its quorum. (Several members of the court had previously recused themselves from the case.)  The court then asked for supplemental briefing on what should happen next.

Following the briefing, in an opinion of the majority of the remaining judges, the 5th Circuit held that it could not give the climate-related lawsuit full court review because of the recusal issues. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir. 2010).  As a result, the court let stand the lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in this case have now filed a petition seeking a writ of mandamus that would overturn the dismissal of their appeal. They raise not the merits of their convoluted causation theory, but the procedural questions about when an en banc court loses its quorum after granting rehearing but before hearing argument en banc, what happens to the appeal? And when an en banc court loses its quorum before deciding an appeal on rehearing en banc, does the original panel somehow still maintain control over the case?

Thus, the case is not positioned like the Second Circuit appeal in which the federal government (Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned company), recently 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 know that writs of mandamus are rarely granted by the Supreme Court,  and the rule has traditionally been that once a court of appeals takes a case for en banc decision, the original panel decision is vacated, null and void, regardless of whatever happens next.  The 5th Circuit cannot legally reinstate a decision that no longer has any legal effect.  But stay tuned.

 

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.


 

Defendants in Second Circuit Climate Change Case Seek Cert

Several electric power companies have asked the Supreme Court to review a Second Circuit ruling that Connecticut and several other states may seek greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance claim.  American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. 8/2/10). The petition for certiorari was filed by American Electric Power Co., Duke Energy Corp., Southern Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.

Readers may recall that in 2004, two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six 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.

Because of the procedural posture (motion to dismiss), the court did not really describe the other side of the story, but readers of MassTortDefense know that change is what the climate is always doing as a result of the planet's orbital eccentricities, axial wobbles, solar brightness changes, cosmic ray flux, and multiple other factors. There are numerous plausible terrestrial drivers of climate changes too. While global warming is a serious topic worthy of scientific study and political discussion, plaintiffs' alleged "consensus" on this issue ignores the fact that global mean temperature is only one part of climate, and may not even be the best metric. Moreover, the most important driver of the greenhouse effect are water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide is only about 0.038% of the atmosphere, and humans are responsible for only about 3.4% of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually, the rest of it being natural.  When thinking about "global climate" changes, we have to be cognizant of the fact that humans have been trying to measure the temperature consistently only since the1880s, during which time even 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 correctly held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. On appeal, 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 court of appeals 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.  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 of appeals rejected defendants challenge that these vague 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. 

This petition 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 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 standardless authority for some of the most important and sensitive economic, energy, and social policy issues presently before the country.  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.

Fifth Circuit Grants Rehearing En Banc In Climate Change Case

We have posted on the climate change litigation, including inexplicable decisions such as the putative class action alleging that -- follow the chain -- dozens of oil and chemical companies emitted greenhouse gasses which contributed to an impact on the atmosphere which contributed to a rise in temperature of some parts of the ocean which contributed to making Hurricane Katrina stronger which contributed to additional damages to plaintiffs' property. Such decisions represent a clear and dangerous trend within certain courts to usurp Congress, warp the traditional nuisance doctrine, and plunge the federal courts into what are essentially political questions.
 

Now comes the welcome news that the Fifth Circuit has ordered en banc rehearing of the case. Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al., No. 07-60756 (5th Cir.). The court issued an order last week granting the defendants' petition for a rehearing en banc, vacating the panel decision from last Fall. The Fifth Circuit panel had ruled that private property owners under Mississippi law may have standing to bring climate change-related nuisance and trespass claims for both property and punitive damages.

The defendants will re-brief the issues by the end of this month, and oral argument appears to be set for the end of May.

"Global Warming" Litigation Update (Part II)

Part two of our update on recent climate change litigation.  In our last post, we discussed the well reasoned decision in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 2009 WL 3326113 (N.D.Cal. 9/30/09).  We contrasted it with the somewhat startling (2-judge) Second Circuit panel decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., allowing a group of states and land trusts to proceed with a so-called global warming tort suit.

In another noteworthy recent case, the Fifth Circuit recently held that a group of property owners in Mississippi can proceed with global warming-related claims. See Comer v. Murphy Oil Co., 2009 WL 3321493 (5th Cir. 10/16/09).  A proposed class of thousands of property owners alleged that damage to their Mississippi coastal properties from Hurricane Katrina would not have been as serious had not defendants' climate change conduct intensified the storm. Along with the Second Circuit decision, this opinion represents a clear and dangerous trend within the court of appeals to usurp Congress, warp the traditional nuisance doctrine, and plunge the federal courts into what are essentially political questions.

In Comer, the district court correctly held that tort suits against electric power companies and other alleged large greenhouse gas emitters should not proceed in federal court because climate change, and tort claims based on alleged climate change, is fraught with national political and policy considerations.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, asserting that until Congress, the executive branch, or a federal agency acts more directly on global warming, Mississippi common law tort rules questions posed by the case are justiciable because there is no commitment of those issues exclusively to the political branches of the federal government.  Thus, plaintiffs had demonstrated standing for public and private nuisance, trespass, and negligence claims; the claims were justiciable and did not present a political question. 

The Fifth Circuit in some ways went  further than the Second Circuit, ruling in essence that climate change-related claims are not limited to injunctions being brought by governmental entities or even quasi-public groups like nonprofit land trusts. The Fifth Circuit ruled that private property owners under Mississippi law also may have standing to bring climate change-related nuisance and trespass claims for both property and punitive damages. That holding may propel additional climate change litigation -- if the ruling stands following likely rehearing motions.

The causation allegation here was arguably even more attenuated than the long, convoluted causation chain in other global warming cases; plaintiffs asserted that defendants' greenhouse gases didn't cause but contributed to global warming, which made the waters in the Gulf of Mexico warmer, which didn't create but then made Hurricane Katrina more intense, which then caused their alleged property damage to be worse.  That stands as perhaps the most attenuated, least supportable, causal link in tort history -- the absence of proximate cause as a matter of law.  The concurrence noted this issue, and would have affirmed a dismissal on this basis.  With class certification, expert discovery, Daubert, and summary judgment hurdles to be crossed, it is clear that this causation issue will not soon disappear.

Ironically, the rash of global warming opinions in cases that had been argued long ago may reflect a recognition of the new administration and a changing emissions policy... in turn, reflecting the political nature of the issues. All readers ought to have profound reservations about the notion, inherent in all private climate change litigation, that the tort system is capable of adjudicating rights and responsibilities on the subject of global warming.

The decisions potentially present business interests with difficult choices: proposed regulations from the administration may be onerous and not grounded in good science; but absent federal action, defendants may risk public nuisance liability in the courts on issues that juries cannot begin to handle well.  

Global Warming Litigation Update (Part I)

Today, the first of a couple of posts on the so-called global warming litigation.  We have posted on the climate change litigation before, and here, and we note first that a  federal trial court recently dismissed a global climate change suit filed by Inupiat Eskimos from Kivalina, Alaska against dozens of oil and energy companies. Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., 2009 WL 3326113 (N.D.Cal. 9/30/09).

The suit was brought by the village of about 400 people, who alleged that as a result of global warming, the Arctic sea ice that protects the Kivalina coast from storms has been diminished, and that resulting erosion will require relocation of the residents to another village.  (The town of Kivalina is located at the tip of a six-mile-long barrier reef, about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska's northwest coast.) Plaintiffs sought damages under federal common law nuisance, state nuisance, and civil conspiracy theories. They alleged that defendants were a major part of the cause of excessive emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which plaintiffs claimed are causing global warming.

The defendants properly noted that many of the questions raised by the plaintiffs in this suit were inherently political; there are no traditional judicial standards available to adjudicate such political issues. They also argued that plaintiffs lacked standing under Article III because the injury to the plaintiffs was not “fairly traceable” to the conduct of the defendants. 

Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California agreed, finding global warming to be a political issue not appropriate for a federal court to decide. The courts have long indicated that disputes involving political questions lie outside of the Article III jurisdiction of federal courts.  Corrie v. Caterpillar, Inc., 503 F.3d 974, 980 (9th Cir.2007). The political question doctrine serves to prevent the federal courts from intruding unduly on certain policy choices and value judgments that are constitutionally committed to Congress or the executive branch.  Koohi v. United States, 976 F.2d 1328, 1331 (9th Cir.1992).  A non-justiciable political question exists when, to resolve a dispute, the court must make a policy judgment of a legislative nature, rather than resolving the dispute through legal and factual analysis. Courts typically look at three broad factors: (i) Does the issue involve resolution of questions committed by the text of the Constitution to a coordinate branch of Government? (ii) Would resolution of the question demand that a court move beyond areas of judicial expertise? (iii) Do prudential considerations counsel against judicial intervention?

Under the second factor, which was key here, the court concluded that a factfinder would have to weigh, inter alia, the energy-producing alternatives that were available in the past and consider their respective impact on far ranging issues such as their reliability as an energy source, safety considerations and the impact of the different alternatives on consumers and business at every level. The factfinder would then have to weigh the benefits derived from those choices against the risk that increasing greenhouse gases would in turn increase the risk of causing flooding along the coast of a remote Alaskan locale. Plaintiffs ignored this aspect of their claim and otherwise failed to articulate any particular judicially discoverable and manageable standards that would guide a factfinder in rendering a decision that is principled, rational, and based upon reasoned distinctions.

Secondly, plaintiffs conceded they were unable to trace their alleged injuries to any particular defendant.  While they sought to rely on, by analogy, injury concepts under the Clean Water Act, the court concluded that even if the theory were applicable outside the context of a statutory water pollution claim, it is simply inapposite where, as here, plaintiffs have not alleged that even the “seed” of their injury can be traced to any of the defendants. Plaintiffs acknowledged that the genesis of the global warming phenomenon dates back centuries and is a result of the emission of greenhouse gases by a multitude of sources other than the defendants. The complaint further alleges that the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide -- “the most significant greenhouse gas emitted by human activity” -- has been increasing steadily “since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, and more than one-third of the increase has occurred since 1980.”  Significantly, the source of the greenhouse gases are undifferentiated and cannot be traced to any particular source, let alone a defendant, given that they rapidly mix in the atmosphere. 

The court thus dismissed the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, both because of the political question, and because the plaintiffs could not prove the companies caused the alleged injury.

The decision is consistent with most prior decisions coming out of the district courts, which generally have viewed these climate change cases as raising fundamentally political judgments.  The decision is a more coherent analysis than the recent, ostensibly conflicting, ruling of the Second Circuit allowing plaintiffs to sue over climate change under federal common law, in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., No. 05-5104-cv (2d Cir. 9/21/09).  (It also will be contrasted in our next post with the Fifth Circuit's recent ruling in Comer v. Murphy Oil Co.

The Second Circuit case involved a suit by states and environmental groups against various electric power companies; these plaintiffs made allegations similar to those in the Alaska case, and that defendants were thus harming the environment, the states' economies, and public health.  The appeals court overturned a well-reasoned trial court ruling that the case represented a non-justiciable political question.  

Unlike the Second Circuit, the California district court recognized major distinctions between ordinary pollution cases and planet-wide climate change allegations;  the court was wisely unwilling to confront -- and could not ignore the existence of -- the myriad legal and policy issues relating to imposing liability on a planetary scale. Judge Armstrong disagreed with the appeals court conclusion that traditional water pollution and air pollution nuisance cases provide appropriate guidance in assessing global warming "nuisance" cases.  While a water pollution claim typically involves a discrete, geographically definable waterway, plaintiffs’ global warming claim is based on the emission of greenhouse gases over decades from innumerable sources located throughout the world and supposedly affecting the entire planet.

Fundamentally, such a nuisance claim would require the judiciary to make a policy decision about who should bear the cost of global warming, if it turns out to be a real climatic phenomenon. Though alleging that defendants are responsible for a "substantial portion" of greenhouse gas emissions, plaintiffs also acknowledge in these cases that virtually everyone on Earth is responsible at some level for contributing to such emissions (even you readers). Thus, plaintiffs are in effect asking the courts to make a political judgment that the two dozen defendants named in this action should be the only ones to bear the cost of contributing to global warming.  The Second Circuit, in contrast, in American Electric, tried to draw a highly dubious distinction between a claim seeking a comprehensive solution to global climate change, a task that arguably falls within the purview of the political branches, and a claim "merely" to limit emissions that allegedly constitute a public nuisance -- because the emissions (part of the highly controversial political debate about global warming) are greenhouse gasses and the source of alleged climate change caused by human activity.    

 

Second Circuit Issues Nuisance Decision That May Impact "Climate Change" Litigation

We posted here recently about proposed "climate change" legislation and how it may affect litigation. Now comes a  federal appeals court ruling allowing certain nuisance claims against major greenhouse gas emitters, a decision that may provide an impetus to more so-called climate change litigation.   See Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 2009 WL 2996729 (2nd Cir. Sept. 21, 2009). Interestingly, this is a two-judge decision as original panel member Judge is now Justice Sotomayor.

In 2004, two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six 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.”

Because of the procedural posture (motion to dismiss), the court did not really describe the other side of the story, but readers of MassTortDefense know that change is what the climate is always doing as a result of the planet's orbital eccentricities, axial wobbles, solar brightness changes, cosmic ray flux, and multiple other factors. There are numerous plausible terrestrial drivers of climate changes too.  While global warming is a serious topic worthy of scientific study and political discussion, plaintiffs' "consensus" ignores that global mean temperature is only one part of climate, and may not be the best metric.  Moreover, the most important driver of the greenhouse effect are water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide is about 0.038% of the atmosphere, while water in its various forms ranges up to 4% of the atmosphere.  Scientists estimate that water accounts for about 90% of the Earth's greenhouse effect.  And humans are responsible for only about 3.4% of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually, the rest of it being natural.  When plaintiffs talk about the consensus, another major issue is that the "warming" numbers come not from measurements but from computer models -- with a huge range of assumptions. One is the so-called multiplier effect which assumes that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide causes a large increase in water vapor and thus a large rather than small temperature spike.

When thinking about "global climate" changes, we have also been sobered by the fact that humans have been trying to measure the 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, 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 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.

An important aspect of the ruling was that the the activity in Congress and the administrative agencies was not yet far enough along to displace common law relief. Federal common law is a necessary expedient to which federal courts may turn when compelled to consider federal questions which cannot be answered from federal statutes alone. But when Congress addresses a question previously governed by a decision rested on federal common law the need for lawmaking by federal courts disappears. The question whether a previously available federal common-law action has been displaced by federal statutory law involves an assessment of the scope of the legislation and whether the scheme established by Congress addresses the problem formerly governed by federal common law.  The court did note that it may happen that new federal laws and new federal regulations may in time pre-empt the field of federal common law of nuisance.  (EPA appears to be on the road on the road toward regulating greenhouse gases.) But at least until EPA makes more findings, for the purposes of a displacement analysis the Clean Air Act does not sufficiently regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

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. 

The ruling may pave the way for more public nuisance suits, as it appears to enable private, nonprofit entities like the Sierra Club to pursue these cases. Allowing such a claim to proceed to discovery raises the potential stakes for every defendant currently or potentially facing public nuisance liability. And thus defendants may be faced with the difficult choice of working towards legislation or facing more of this kind of litigation.
 

 

Chamber of Commerce Requests Open Debate on Science of Global Warming

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week filed a supplemental request for an “on-the-record” hearing to debate the evidence behind the Environmental Protection Agency’s expected finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public health and welfare.

Readers of MassTortDefense may recall that in 2007, in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases could be regarded as air pollutants, and held that EPA must determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare, or whether the science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision. In making these decisions, the agency is required to follow the language of section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act. The Supreme Court decision resulted from a petition for rulemaking under section 202(a) filed by more than a dozen environmental, renewable energy, and other organizations.

The EPA is proposing to find that the current and projected concentrations of the mix of six key greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) — in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. This is typically referred to as an "endangerment finding."  EPA is further proposing to find that the combined emissions of CO2, CH4, N2O, and HFCs from new motor vehicles and motor vehicle engines contribute to the atmospheric concentrations of these key greenhouse gases and hence to the threat of climate change.  While an endangerment finding under the Clean Air Act would not by itself automatically trigger extensive regulation under the entire Act, many observers expect such regulations.  Moreover, the finding could prod the Congress to pass controversial climate legislation.  Finally, it may impact the pace and weight of climate change litigation.

The Chamber argues that the informal notice-and-comment process employed here has not worked to air the issues, and the only real solution is an on-the-record hearing for a transparent review of all the evidence.  Having reviewed the evidence in EPA’s endangerment docket, the Chamber observes flaws and omissions in the reasoning underlying the proposed endangerment finding. The Chamber is thus asking for more transparency in this process, as the ruling could ultimately cause a "regulatory train wreck" with inescapable economic consequences, as well as an impact on mass tort litigation. The agency has apparently ignored evidence contradicting its preliminary conclusions on a wide range of issues, such as the alleged effect higher temperatures will have on net mortality and on the levels of other pollutants.  Media reports have surfaced that EPA ignored a study by two members of its staff concluding that the agency had relied on outdated studies and that the current state of climate science refutes the proposed endangerment finding.



 

Climate Change Litigation and Legislation Update

Although we haven't posted about it much, a number of environmental groups, states and private citizens have brought litigation, seeking to turn climate change issues into mass torts. Thus far, the litigation, which has focused principally on greenhouse gas emissions, has not been very successful. Unlike typical mass tort litigation, some of these plaintiffs admit that part of the goal of the cases is to encourage Congress to act on legislation (leading to regulation) that would achieve some of the same goals.

One example is the mass tort suit filed in 2008 by residents of a small Alaskan village against two dozen energy companies, claiming that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have left their town uninhabitable. Native Village of Kialina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., et al., 2008 WL 2951742 (C.D.Cal.)

Now comes word that a number of studies will be released in the near future, examining the potential impact of pending climate-change legislation, including its effect on food prices. Under the proposed climate-change legislation, a carbon offset, or credit, can be generated when a company reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere. The resulting offsets can then be sold to other polluters or used by the producer to reduce its overall emission totals. Certain companies would have to pay penalties if they emit more than allowed without offsets.The House passed a bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, in late June. There is concern the bill doesn't provide sufficient incentives for food and agricultural companies to receive and generate carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions. The Senate is expected to take up its own climate bill next month. Critics say that the House bill also risks an increase in food and feed prices, and a reduction in the international competitiveness of U.S. businesses.

Again, the legislation and any resulting regulation may have a significant impact on whether the courts will breathe life into mass tort litigation relating to alleged climate change issues.