Climate wars sweep courts as Biden eyes bold emissions cuts

Source: By Jennifer Hijazi, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, December 21, 2020

Courtroom battles over climate change raged across the country — and around the world — as legal experts continue to grapple with the role of the judiciary in addressing rising global temperatures.

Climate litigation shows no sign of slowing, even as the United States prepares to welcome a president to the White House who is expected to usher in policies aimed at reducing emissions of planet-warming gases.

“We will get much needed federal policy on climate with the Biden administration … this doesn’t obviate the need for traditional state consumer protection, statutory claims and tort law claims dealing with deceptive marketing because that’s not what federal policy needs to do,” said Karen Sokol, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.

“There’s always going to be a space for [those actions], even if we have the best climate policy possible.”

President-elect Joe Biden could also create waves in the world of climate litigation if his Justice Department chooses to intervene in a growing set of lawsuits seeking payment from the oil and gas industry to help cities, counties and states fight the climate-induced wildfires, droughts and storms their residents now face, said Donald Kochan, a professor at the George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School.

“It seems the Biden Administration and Biden [Justice Department] want to become more active in using their direct or amicus power to influence the direction of climate change tort and other damages litigation,” Kochan wrote in an email. “The support and resources they provide could have a heavy impact.”

This year brought a new crop of liability lawsuits accusing oil and gas companies of perpetuating misinformation about fossil fuels’ contributions to climate change. Most of those fights remain locked in jurisdictional battles, but one case that is currently pending in the Supreme Court has the potential to help decide whether the cases belong before state or federal judges — a question that could dramatically affect the fate of the lawsuits.

Outside of the United States, human rights-based climate cases are popping up in a number of international courts. The challenges were likely galvanized by last year’s decision in State of the Netherlands v. Urgenda Foundation, in which Dutch judges found that leaders in the Netherlands had an affirmative legal duty to take stronger action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Young people are spearheading many of the lawsuits, taking a page from the landmark case Juliana v. United States.

The lawsuits continue to pop up — notably even in the shadow of a pandemic, said Joana Setzer, an assistant professor at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. She pointed to a new human rights-based case in South Korea as one example.

“It was possible to bring the case despite of COVID,” Setzer said. “Asia had been hit first, and they still managed to bring the case.”

Here are some of the major developments in climate litigation in 2020:

Kids’ climate case

The year began with a decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals quashing the Juliana challenge — a major setback for the landmark case that has been a cornerstone of the youth climate movement nationally and globally.

Led by the legal nonprofit Our Children’s Trust, 21 young people sued the U.S. government in 2015 for failing to protect kids’ constitutional rights to a safe climate. They asked the government to put a moratorium on oil and gas leases and establish a national emissions reduction plan.

The case has garnered waves of media attention and inspired similar challenges across the United States and around the world.

But the 9th Circuit said this year that it must “reluctantly” dismiss the challenge, even as it admitted that climate change is an existential threat. The problem, the judges said, is one for the political branches, rather than the courts, to address (Greenwire, Jan. 17).

The young challengers are awaiting a decision from the 9th Circuit on whether it will rehear the case.

Supreme Court fight

The nation’s highest bench said this fall that it would take up a narrow issue in one of the many efforts to get Big Oil to pay up for its role in climate change.

At issue in BP PLC v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore is a law that largely prevents federal appeals courts from reviewing the entire scope of district court remand orders (Climatewire, Oct. 5).

That prohibition has thwarted industry’s efforts to fully appeal a slew of district court orders that pushed climate damages cases back to state courts in California, Rhode Island, Colorado and Maryland.

Industry lawyers asked the Supreme Court last month to broaden the fight by requesting that the justices find that all climate liability cases like Baltimore’s belong in federal court. The challenges may be more likely to fail if they land in federal venues.

Kochan of George Mason was surprised at how much the high court battle has been “overhyped” as a climate petition. He said he doubts the justices’ decision next year will even mention climate change, let alone have a major effect on the path of climate litigation.

“I worry that the many court watchers are hoping there’s a climate change gun that’s being brought to the federal rules knife fight, only to be disappointed that the bullets will never even have a chance to get fired,” he said.

Barrett’s climate comments

The Supreme Court’s newest member made waves this fall when she refused to comment on the issue of climate change in her confirmation hearings.

Though now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett remained tight-lipped about most controversial issues during the proceedings, environmental advocates worried that her reticence to address global warming and her statements that it is a political issue could be bad news for climate lawsuits (Climatewire, Oct. 14).

Barrett is now the sixth Republican-appointed member of a Supreme Court that appears to be increasingly hesitant to support federal agencies’ authority to address issues — like climate change — that are not explicitly addressed in bedrock statutes like the Clean Air Act.

The court’s newly bolstered conservative majority could pose a major hurdle for any attempts by the incoming Biden administration to take broad executive action on climate change.

Urgenda fallout

Since the release of the Urgenda decision late last year, lawsuits accusing international governments of falling short on climate action have proliferated in global courts.

The challenges have had mixed success.

This summer, the Irish Supreme Court found that the government’s mitigation plans did not do enough to reduce emissions, although the court stopped short of creating an affirmative right to a stable climate (Climatewire, Aug. 3). Last month, the European Court of Human Rights greenlit and fast-tracked a lawsuit against 33 nations that was filed this fall by a group of young people in Portugal (Climatewire, Dec. 1).

Legal action may be one important option for engaging young people who are concerned about the future of their environment, said Setzer of the Grantham Research Institute.

“The children involved are really part of this new generation of kids that are wired; they really worry about climate change,” she said.

Setzer added: “When you were a kid, did you think about bringing a lawsuit? Teaching these children about the law, about fighting for your rights in court — in that perspective, I find [these cases] very interesting.”