Do Climate Change and Same-Sex Marriage Have Anything in Common?

Posted on June 29, 2015 by Seth Jaffe

Recent events have me pondering this question.

Most notably, in two court decisions last week, courts ordered the State of Washington and the government of the Netherlands to take more aggressive action against climate change.  In the Washington case, in response to a complaint from eight teenagers, a trial court judge has ordered the Washington Department of Ecology to reconsider a petition filed by the teenagers requesting reductions in GHG emissions.  Similarly, in the Netherlands, a court ordered the government to reduce GHG emissions by 25% within five years.  The Dutch case was brought under human rights and tort law, not under existing Dutch environmental laws.

I have been very skeptical of the use of nuisance-type litigation to require more aggressive government regulatory efforts.  I still think comprehensive market-based regulation is the best approach.  However, in the absence of aggressive action in the United States and world-wide, these suits are going to increase in number.

So, how are they similar to the same-sex marriage issue?  First, as noted in Obergefell, courts were initially – and for some time – not just unfriendly to litigation efforts in support of same-sex marriage, they were positively dismissive.  Second, there is the gradual increase over time in the litigation.

Next, there is also the change over time in the scientific understanding of the issues.  While same-sex marriage has always been, on both sides, primarily a moral issue, it would be wrong to ignore the role that an increasing understanding of the genetics of sexual preference has played in the debate.  Similarly, the move towards an overwhelming weight of evidence, not just that climate change is occurring, but that it is anthropogenic, has obviously been important to the climate change debate.

Finally, while the moral issues in same sex marriage may seem to distinguish it from the climate issue, the recent papal encyclical makes clear that there are moral aspects to the climate change debate as well.

I have no crystal ball.  I do not know whether we are going to see a groundswell, and then, perhaps, a tidal wave that will somehow overcome the gridlock in United States and world politics on climate change.  There are differences in the two issues, most obviously in the short-run economic costs of addressing climate change.  Nonetheless, I do know that it wouldn’t surprise me if the tidal wave comes, and relatively soon.

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