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.