U.S. Judge Upholds Cities’ Right to Sue Fossils for Climate Adaptation Costs
A San Francisco judge opened the door last week for more climate lawsuits when he upheld two cities’ right to attempt to sue greenhouse gas emitters in U.S. federal court.
“This will be the closest that we have seen to a trial on climate science in the United States, to date,” said Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
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The ruling by Judge William Alsup is “a big reversal,” Grist adds. “So far, the courts have held that it’s up to the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and lawmakers—not judges—to bring polluters into line.”
“The hearing marks the most recent novel development in an already groundbreaking lawsuit,” EcoWatch reports. “San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to sue the fossil fuel industry over climate change when it filed with Oakland against the five largest fossil fuel-producing corporations in September 2017.”
The suit asserts that Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell “have known for decades that fossil fuel-driven global warming and accelerated sea level rise posed a catastrophic risk to human beings.” The cities say that foreknowledge puts the companies on the hook for the cost of local adaptation measures, like building sea walls.
Alsup instructed parties on both sides of the case to return to court with a two-part presentation.
“The first part will trace the history of scientific study of climate change,” while “the second part will set forth the best science now available on global warming, glacier melt, sea rise, and coastal flooding,” according to a McClatchy News picked up by EcoWatch.
By directing the case to federal court, Alsup squashed the cities’ attempt to have the case heard at the state level, where California has developed precedents around “public nuisance” law. A “patchwork of 50 different answers to the same fundamental global issue would be unworkable,” he ruled.
To the extent, the five colossal fossils “got what they wanted; but they may be sorry they did,” commented lawyer Ken Adams at the Center for Climate Integrity.
“Of course, after opening this door, the courts could very well slam it shut again,” Grist notes. “The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2011 that it’s the job of Congress and regulators, not the court, to police emissions. But that decision concerned an American electric utility. Alsup said this case was different because the cities are suing international corporations.”