Posted on July 3, 2018 by Seth Jaffe
On June 25th, Judge William Alsup dismissed the public nuisance case brought by the City of Oakland and the State of California against five major oil companies. The suit sought payment of damages into a fund to be used for necessary adaptation expenditures to deal with sea level rise.
Why did he dismiss the case? Simple. The courts are not the right forum in which to address the problems of climate change. The more complicated answer? Because AEP v. Connecticut held that the Clean Air Act displaces federal common law claims for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and because claims with respect to sales by the defendants outside of the United States could not be addressed by a U.S. court without violating the presumption against giving extraterritorial effect to U.S. laws.
Here, plaintiffs seek to impose liability on five companies for their production and sale of fossil fuels worldwide. These claims — through which plaintiffs request billions of dollars to abate the localized effects of an inherently global phenomenon — undoubtedly implicate the interests of countless governments, both foreign and domestic. The challenged conduct is, as far as the complaints allege, lawful in every nation. And, as the United States aptly notes, many foreign governments actively support the very activities targeted by plaintiffs’ claims. Nevertheless, plaintiffs would have a single judge or jury in California impose an abatement fund as a result of such overseas behavior. Because this relief would effectively allow plaintiffs to govern conduct and control energy policy on foreign soil, we must exercise great caution.
This order fully accepts the vast scientific consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has materially increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which in turn has increased the median temperature of the planet and accelerated sea level rise. But questions of how to appropriately balance these worldwide negatives against the worldwide positives of the energy itself, and of how to allocate the pluses and minuses among the nations of the world, demand the expertise of our environmental agencies, our diplomats, our Executive, and at least the Senate. Nuisance suits in various United States judicial districts regarding conduct worldwide are far less likely to solve the problem and, indeed, could interfere with reaching a worldwide consensus.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve always thought that these types of suits are not the way to address climate change. I’ve recently acknowledged that, if the current administration continues to rely on fake news to formulate its position on climate change, courts at some point might conclude that the exigencies of the situation require them to act. For now, we haven’t reached that point, and I hope we never do.