In a recent Cato Daily Podcast with Caleb Brown, Cato adjunct scholar Andrew Grossman of Baker & Hostetler discusses the “legally aggressive” new round of climate change litigation, in which municipalities in California and Colorado, as well as New York City, have sued energy producers and distributors seeking to recover damages over the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
As Grossman notes, the idea of suing over the role of carbon emissions in climate change has by this point been tried many times. The most obvious approach would be to sue large industrial emitters of carbon, which is what some state governments did in one of the most prominent cases, filed against electric utilities. In its 2011 AEP v. Connecticut decision, however, the Supreme Court ruled that such outputs were regulated comprehensively and exclusively at the federal level through enactments like the Clean Air Act, and were not subject to an additional level of state regulation through public nuisance claims. Suits on other theories, such as Comer v. Murphy Oilfrom the Fifth Circuit and the Kivalina case in the Northern District of California, have been launched “to enormous bombast and press attention and they have all bombed out…. Those cases were the low-hanging fruit. Those were the more obvious legal theories if you were going to try to bring this kind of case,” he says.
Now the question is whether litigants can accomplish an end run by instead attacking upstream, pre-emissions activity, specifically the extraction and distribution of fossil fuels destined to be burned. Ambitiously, some of the new suits attempt to apply state common law to activities occurring around the world – to the doings of worldwide corporations such as Royal Dutch-Shell, for example, and to oil production from places like the coast of Norway and its subsequent use by European motorists. Needless to say, many of these processes are comprehensively regulated by the laws of the European Union and its member countries. Doctrinally, then, the new efforts get into even deeper water (so to speak) than strictly domestic claims. From the podcast:
If a court in California is going to go around telling Norway what to do, well, gosh, Norway may not really like that. And what do you do in that instance? It’s not apparent to me how this works. How does the court figure out what Norway’s regulations are and what Norway is doing about this? Who’s going to tell them? I don’t know. What if Norway disagrees with whatever it is that the court decides needs to be done in this case? Does Norway complain to the court? Do they send an ambassador to file a brief or something? I don’t know. This has never happened before. And what if Norway decides that they don’t like whatever it is the court is doing and they’re going to impose, say, reciprocal trade tariffs, or something like that, against the United States on the basis of one of these rulings? Does the court hold them in contempt?