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Suing Over Climate Change

Could climate policy end up getting thrashed out in the courts? That would be an ugly turn of events, but it could happen. The New York Times has a long piece today about the rise of "nuisance" suits that are being filed against major carbon-dioxide emitters. The Alaskan town of Kivalina, for instance, has sued two dozen fuel and utility companies, including Shell and ExxonMobil, accusing them of contributing to global warming and helping erode the town's shoreline. And these suits are slowly creeping forward.

The obvious analogue here is the spate of lawsuits levied against tobacco companies from the 1950s onward, which eventually led to big settlements and stricter government regulation. The plaintiffs don't even need to win their suits to have an impact—in the tobacco cases, the discovery stage, which unearthed all sorts of embarrassing memos, often turned out to be hugely significant. But could these climate lawsuits really achieve similar ends? Maybe—though not in exactly the same way.

As Nathan Richardson of Resources for the Future explains, the EPA can very likely preempt these suits by taking its own actions to regulate greenhouse gases. And since nearly everyone agrees that regulation would be preferable to policy-by-lawsuit, that puts added pressure on the EPA to act. But, on the flip side, if Congress manages to strip the EPA of its authority over greenhouse gases—say, through Lisa Murkowski's resolution—then the nuisance suits could well start gathering momentum. In the end, this is going to be an unstable situation and Congress will likely have to step in and enact its own climate policies. Of course, there's the little question of when that might ever happen…

(Flickr photo credit: kevinmuro)