This week, a California federal court dismissed a lawsuit brought by two cities against a number of large oil companies seeking to force the companies to fund the cities’ climate change adaptation efforts. The Court held that, while the science behind global warming is real, the problem must be solved by the legislative and executive branches.
The plaintiffs’ claims were based only on the defendants’ sale of fossil fuels. By selling fossil fuels, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants were setting off a chain of action that would lead to the combustion of those fossil fuels, which would increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which would lead to global warming, which would lead to sea level rise. The defendants knew this would happen, and they should be required to pay for any infrastructure the cities would be required to implement to combat sea level rise.
The court characterized plaintiffs’ theory of liability as “breathtaking.”
Their theory rests on the sweeping proposition that otherwise lawful and everyday sales of fossil fuels, combined with an awareness that greenhouse gas emissions lead to increased global temperatures, constitute a public nuisance.
The court noted that these claims could reach far and wide, potentially imposing liability on every sale of fossil fuels anywhere in the world by anyone who knew that combustion of fossil fuels contributed to global warming.
But while the court acknowledged these issues, it did not directly address them. Instead, the court noted that the issue was far too broad in scope and technical in nature to be appropriately solved by the courts. The issue involves an analysis of worldwide fossil fuel consumption, the benefits of energy use, and the environmental impacts associated with it. That analysis, according to the court, requires the expertise of our environmental agencies, diplomats, our Executive, and the Legislature.
In sum, this order accepts the science behind global warming. So do both sides. The dangers raised in the complaints are very real. But those dangers are worldwide. Their causes are worldwide. The benefits of fossil fuels are worldwide. The problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case. While it remains true that our federal courts have authority to fashion common law remedies for claims based on global warming, courts must also respect and defer to the other co-equal branches of government when the problem at hand clearly deserves a solution best addressed by those branches. The Court will stay its hand in favor of solutions by the legislative and executive branches.
What the legislative and executive branches choose to do remains to be seen, but that is a topic for a different post…