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.