New: a climate litigation movement

Posted: February 1, 2018

Climate-related efforts have spread from the science community to politicians to regulators to activists – and now, increasingly, the courts.

As of last May, the United States had 654 climate change litigation cases – almost three times that of the rest of the world combined – and the number of countries in which climate change cases had been filed had tripled since 2014, according to UN Environment and Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Call it a climate litigation movement.

One of the most prominent suits is the city of New York’s against the world’s five largest publicly traded oil companies – BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell. As detailed in the Jan. 10 Washington Post, New York blames the petro giants for creating 11 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases and downplaying the consequences – including concrete costly and “existential” threats to the city. It wants compensatory damages.

“To deal with what the future will inevitably bring, the City must build sea walls, levees, dunes, and other coastal armament, and elevate and harden a vast array of City-owned structures, properties, and parks along its coastline,” says the suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. “The costs of these largely unfunded projects run to many billions of dollars and far exceed the City’s resources.”

The city aims to further turn up the heat by divesting from oil and gas in the city’s pension funds.

Exxon responded on its blog, criticizing the New York litigation (and similar suits in California) as counterproductive. “ExxonMobil welcomes any well-meaning and good faith attempt to address the risks of climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions. Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life – simply do not do that.”

Reuters has identified five other important climate cases that could break in 2018.

  1. A farmer is suing an energy company located in Germany for its alleged role, via greenhouse gases and melting glaciers, in causing a lake to rise in Peru.
  2. A group of young Oregonians is suing the federal government for failing to protect the atmosphere, allegedly violating their constitutional rights (Juliana v. United States).
  3. There’s an appeal of a landmark victory in the Netherlands by citizens who pressured the government to do more to cut emissions, claiming it’s a constitutional obligation.
  4. There’s a suit against Norway for letting energy companies explore for oil and gas in the Arctic Barents Sea, another claimed constitutional violation.
  5. Finally, ExxonMobil is countersuing Massachusetts and New York attorneys general to derail subpoenas aimed at obtaining the oil giant’s climate science documents.

At first glance, one might think President Trump’s deregulatory posture might benefit the oil companies’ position. Some plaintiffs, however, hope judges will pick up where regulators leave off.

“So there’s a movement to do this in the courts,” said Andrew Welle, staff attorney at Our Children’s Trust (OCT), the legal advocacy group behind Juliana v. United States. “You will continue to see new climate cases coming out of the woodwork.”