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Can we sue for climate action?
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Can we sue for climate action?

Can we sue our way to climate action?


Many young environmentalists are disappointed by the lack of progress in Washington as the world struggles with climate change. Many people mourn the loss of their former selves President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCan we sue for climate action? Sunday preview: Justice Breyer announces his retirement from the Supreme Court Global Health, Empowerment, and Rights Act will permanently eliminate the harmful global gag rule LEARN MORE’s failure to pass a cap-and-trade bill in 2009, lost the battle against deregulation during the Trump era and are now witnessing President BidenJoe BidenRussia relocates naval exercises due to Irish concerns Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, says he has ordered the UK’s Armed Forces to be ready for deployment next week amid tensions in Ukraine Youngkin incites Democratic backlash to Virginia LEARN MORE’s Build Back Better agenda die a slow death in Congress. Their frustration is leading them to a new, more dangerous path: climate lawsuit. 

Many young people are deeply concerned about climate change solutions, responsible conservancy, and environmental sustainability. They also feel strongly about the future of the planet. It is vital that we promote effective ideas as climate change becomes increasingly important in the minds and hearts of young Americans. We must be skeptical of any proposals that are not practical, unproductive, or self-interested. I am concerned about the idea to use the courts to address climate changes. This approach could lead to lost time and expense, which may not be beneficial for the environment.

The claim in the current lawsuits is simple. Energy companies supply us energy we need. Our use of that energy emits greenhouse gasses and contributes climate change. For two decadesAdvocates have repackaged and reused them under different forms. Some lawsuits use public nuisance principles to argue that emitters should compensate communities for reducing the impact of climate change. Others seek to tie energy production directly and climate impacts, such a higher flooding and fires. Others focus on who said and did what. Some seek damages while others claim constitutional right.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on Jan. 25 regarding the future jurisdiction of one of the lawsuits. This case was brought by Baltimore against more then a dozen energy companies to make them pay for the infrastructure improvements that the city claims it needs to combat climate change. This case could set a precedent for over 20 similar lawsuits by other states, cities, and counties in the United States. At hand is the question of whether state or federal courts will be the legal venue for Baltimore’s climate lawsuit.

The city and its activist supporters want to kick authority to state courts — as opposed to federal courts — where they seem to hope for a local, sympathetic judge. Following the Fourth Circuit oral arguments, Manufacturers’ Accountability Project Special Counsel Phil Goldberg noted, “Baltimore’s claims may be creatively packaged under state law, but the nature of climate change, this litigation and the remedies they seek are all inherently beyond the scope of any state.” That’s true.

The jurisdiction is irrelevant. The most important question is whether these lawsuits will be beneficial for the environment and fight against climate change. They are not.

It seems that this explicit goal is to the lawsuits’ proponentsIt is to force companies to raise their prices in order to pay the damages caused by these lawsuits. Forcing energy companies to raise their prices on us so they can pay for infrastructure in places most of us don’t live does not serve us in the fight against climate change. 

People behind the litigation are refusing to admit that energy companies are making a legal and universally-used product. These energy products are used to heat, power and cook our meals. Although reducing global emissions is essential, raising energy costs by suing and impoverishing everyday Americans won’t solve global emissions. Suing a few energy companies for climate change is not a pro-environment position.

Hence, activists continue to pursue them. They are likely to be used as political publicity stunts rather than serious efforts to combat climate change. These stunts are not in line with an environmental conservation mission. The mission should be committed to advancing solutions that encourage energy innovation and modernize America’s infrastructure while supporting natural methods to reduce greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere.

Young Americans see the value of encouraging public-private partnerships that lower cost and support American innovation in technology like carbon sequestration. These technologies, when combined with practical regulatory reform, will make it easier to develop clean energy projects that deliver tangible benefits. This will positively impact the municipalities that are currently wasting time and resources suing energy companies in courts. 

The debate is more than deciding where to have the case in Baltimore. If we are serious about tackling climate change — and we must be — we must pursue innovation and collaboration. We don’t have time to waste on what amount to frivolous lawsuits that are likely little more than political stunts. 

Christopher BarnardThe American Conservation Coalition’s national policy director is Chris Barnard. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisBarnardDL


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