August 21, 2008

Global Warming Litigation Heating up – Village of Kivalina Lawsuit

Posted on August 21, 2008 by Mark Walker

As the debate regarding the contribution of anthropogenic greenhouse gases to global warming continues, some parties are taking their concerns directly to the courts. Perhaps the latest in the growing number of global warming lawsuits is the Native Village of Kivalina, Alaska v. ExxonMobil, et al., Case No. CV-08-1138, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.


The Village of Kivalina is located in northwest Alaska about 120 miles from the Arctic circle. The Village is comprised of roughly 1.9 square miles of land which lies on the tip of a barrier island which separates the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon on the mainland side. There are 399 residents of Kivalina, 97% of whom are Native Alaskans referred to as “Inupiat” Eskimos, meaning “the people.” 


With claims presaged by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, Kivalina claims that global warming has caused the melting of Arctic sea ice which formerly protected the Village from winter storms. Without the protective ice, the Village claims that storms have caused massive erosion, leaving “houses and buildings in imminent danger of falling into the sea.” The Village contends that, “if the entire village is not relocated soon, the village will be destroyed.” Governmental estimates of the cost to relocate run as high as $400 million –roughly $1 million per resident.


The defendants are 9 oil and gas companies, 14 electric generation companies and 1 coal company. Kivalina contends that the defendants are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the United States, and that the defendants “are responsible for a substantial portion of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that have caused global warming.” The Village is pursuing a public nuisance theory.


With allegations that are indeed carbon copied from the “Science Fraud” chapter in “An Inconvenient Truth”, Kivalina claims that eight of the defendants have engaged in a civil conspiracy to generate misinformation and propaganda to create doubt as to whether global warming is occurring and, if so, whether man-made emissions are to blame. The Village claims that the alleged co-conspirators have used “front groups, fake citizens organizations, and bogus scientific bodies” to generate the alleged misinformation and doubt.


The Kivalina lawsuit is in its early stages, however, the defendants have filed motions to dismiss claiming, inter alia, that (1) the plaintiffs cannot pursue a federal common law nuisance claim because such claim is available only to States seeking injunctive relief and because the Clean Air Act displaces the authority of the courts to regulate nationwide greenhouse gas emissions and global warming; and (2) the plaintiffs’ conspiracy claims are not independent torts, but are derivative of their underlying nuisance claims and should fail along with the nuisance claims. 


Similar lawsuits have previously been dismissed on the grounds of lack of standing and non-justiciability under the political question doctrine. See Comer, et al. v. Murphy Oil, et al., Case No. 1:05-cv-00436-LTS-RHW, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, dismissal currently on appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (Appeal No. 07-60756); State of California v. General Motors, et al., Case No. C-06-05755-MJJ, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, dismissal currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Appeal No. 07-16908). In Comer the plaintiffs blamed Hurricane Katrina on global warming and on 8 oil companies, 31 coal companies and 4 chemical companies that allegedly contributed to global warming. 

So far, the courts appear to be of the view that the responsibility for developing a comprehensive global warming policy which balances the interests of reducing air pollution and its social costs with the corresponding harm to economic development and its attendant social costs is a political question which is reserved for the political branches of government, and that such policies should not be developed on an ad hocbasis by the courts. Kivalina is once again testing the resolve of the courts to stay out of the global warming debate until Congress and/or the EPA establish clear policies regarding man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

To view a copy of the Kivalina Complaint, click here.

For more information on the author, click here.

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