A Lawsuit Everyone Can Bring

Can you sue over something that you claim will affect everyone in the planet in the distant future, even if that means that everyone on Earth can file a similar lawsuit now? The Supreme Court may address a similar question soon. The Supreme Court agreed today to consider whether the Bush administration must regulate carbon dioxide to combat potential global warming, in Massachusetts v. EPA.

Twelve states had sued the EPA to force it to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles. Although carbon dioxide is an integral component of the atmosphere, and does not contaminate or cause cancer, the states argued it constitutes air pollution covered by the Clean Air Act, because it may cause global warming over the long run.

A splintered three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-to-1 to reject the lawsuit, but the judges in the majority didn’t agree on why. Judge Sentelle would have rejected the suit for not complying with the Constitution’s requirement of standing, under which a plaintiff must allege particularized injuries, not a “generalized grievance” shared by much of the public at large (much less the entire planet). Judge Randolph, by contrast, was unsure of whether the plaintiffs had standing, but concluded that even if they did, and the EPA had jurisdiction to regulate carbon dioxide, the lawsuit should still be dismissed. He pointed out that regulating carbon dioxide on a state-by-state basis, as the Clean Air Act would do, made no sense, since global warming is a planet-wide concern. Thus, the EPA’s decision not to regulate carbon dioxide was sensible. By contrast, Judge Tatel’s dissent argued that the plaintiffs did have standing, since although everyone might be affected by global warming, they might be affected by it in different ways, with a coastal state being flooded while an arid state might become more arid.

In another lawsuit, attorney generals from seven states have sued out-of-state utilities under state nuisance laws, alleging that power plants, by generating carbon dioxide, are causing global warming. New York federal judge Loretta Preska dismissed their lawsuit in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co. She, too, held that the plaintiffs lacked standing, since they complained of a generalized injury that would be better handled by the political process than by the courts.

If state attorney generals can sue power plants in distant states, that may lead to an explosion of interregional litigation, regional conflict, and judicial micromanagement of out-of-state utilities.


  • “Attorney generals” should read, “attorneys general.”

  • With every breath, we exhale both carbon dioxide and water vapor, the two most significant greenhouse gases. We should all just sue each other.