In climate suits, economic case has upper hand — study

Source: David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Courts tend to side with climate action when the litigants are pursuing renewable or energy efficiency development — but less so when they take aim at coal plants, according to a new study from George Washington University researchers.

“Anti-regulatory” groups, like those opposed to rules intended to limit emissions, coal-plant expansions and possible encroachments onto species’ habitats, won in most climate cases, at a ratio of about 1.4 to 1.

But those arguing in favor of renewable mandates and other clean energy and energy efficiency laws were far more successful, prevailing in 2.6 cases for every one lost.

“They should use the courts,” said Sabrina McCormick, the GWU sociologist who led the team.

Those advocates were often successful because they built their case partly on economics instead of climate science alone, she added.

“It’s the truth about the costs of energy — introducing the accurate information about these costs. There’s a lot of misrepresentation about the cost of expanding coal-fired power plants” compared with renewables, she said.

Anti-regulatory groups tended to lean on economic research either to substantiate the negative impact of regulation on business or “to refute reliance on science by pro-regulatory groups,” the study said.

“This is one of the reasons why they’re winning coal-fired power plant cases,” said McCormick.

The team found no association between the mention of climate science and favorable results for the pro-regulatory groups, which included government agencies, renewable advocates, environmentalists and others favoring climate action.

Air quality and coal plant cases predominated among the 838 cases examined, which were compiled by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University Law School. Anti-regulatory groups had a higher rate of success there compared with cases dealing with biodiversity, renewables and energy efficiency. And they usually focused their efforts there.

Renewable and energy efficiency matters were considered in just 51 cases, emerging mostly from 2013 on.

“Even though they’re smaller in number, there’s a growing wave in these kinds of suits that is incredibly promising for the address of climate change through the courts,” said McCormick.