Last year, a group of teenagers filed suit (Alec L. v. Lisa Jackson, et al, C11-02203) in federal court alleging that the federal government was violating its duty to protect the public by not acting to protect the public trust: our land, water and atmosphere. They request injunctive relief requiring the federal government to act to reduce carbon emissions, create a carbon inventory and create a carbon reduction plan.
Last month the judge hearing the case allowed the National Association of Manufacturing and others to intervene. Predictably, the association argued that what the plaintiffs are asking for would cripple industry by dramatically increasing the cost of doing business. It has asked that the case be dismissed.
I don’t know what the outcome of the suit will be, but it won’t surprise me if the case is dismissed. The remedies requested are extremely broad, and it is difficult to imagine a court issuing such an injunction. However, the case is important for other reasons.
First, this case is probably on the leading edge of suits to come. Lawsuits asking for economic damages for health or property damage due to climate change are also being filed in various courts and probably will increase. Litigation is expensive and time-consuming, but can be a vehicle for social change even absent specific legislation: Product liability and tobacco liability cases come to mind.
The manufacturing interests have the argument half right. Addressing climate change will cost current generations of businesses more. What the argument omits is that failure to act costs more as well. This isn’t news. However, when we make economic decisions, future generations and children aren’t represented.
This issue is currently front and center as Oregonians debate whether to bring coal to the Pacific Northwest. In Oregon our one coal-burning plant will be closed in a few years, but we are now debating whether coal should be shipped by rail and by barge to China and India through our ports.