Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Climate Litigation

John Schwartz has an excellent article in today's NY Times discussing the importance, both strategic and substantive, of lawsuits filed against major greenhouse gas emitters for alleged costs of climate change. The biggest case discussed in the article, still at a fairly early stage in the process, was filed by a village of 400 Alaska natives located on a barrier island that is being eroded away allegedly because the sea ice that used to protect it is disappearing. They are suing two dozen energy companies and utilities, including Exxon and Shell Oil, for the costs of relocating the entire village to the mainland, which could amount to $400.

As the article notes, the chief value of litigating climate lawsuits may not be in the substantive outcome of those suits, but in the pressure they create for defendants to support alternative regulatory solutions currently stuck in the Senate. However, even if Congress enacts a regulatory regime, there is no guarantee that it would immunize greenhouse gas emitters from similar lawsuits in the future.

The article also makes an interesting analogy to the early tobacco litigation, which were not very successful early on, but eventually led to large negotiated settlements and new regulations.

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