Alec L. and the Tortious Development of Climate Change Litigation

Posted on January 3, 2012 by David Buente

For some advocates of greenhouse gas regulation, tort law has become the primary vehicle to achieve their goal.  Dissatisfied with their progress in the political branches, they’ve begun presenting their claims to courts as tort lawsuits.  When the claims are rejected, they repackage them in different common-law wrappings and sue again. 

The first of these suits was Connecticut et al. v. American Electric Power Co. et al. (“AEP”) (dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year), in which several States and land trusts sought to declare greenhouse gas emissions a common law “nuisance” and secure an injunction capping emissions from a small group of national electric utilities at levels the plaintiffs deemed “reasonable.”  Next came Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al., where a group of Mississippi landowners sued the same utilities, and scores of other companies, for damages caused by Hurricane Katrina, claiming that the defendants’ greenhouse gas emissions constituted a common law “nuisance,” a “trespass,” and “negligence.”  (After dismissal by the district court and Fifth Circuit, the plaintiffs simply refiled the case—motions to dismiss again are in briefing).  Next, in Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp. et al., an Alaskan village relied on many of these same common law theories, with allegations of a “conspiracy” added for good measure, suing many of the same defendants for costs the village would purportedly incur protecting itself from storms and other risks they attributed to climate change.  (The district court’s dismissal was recently argued to the Ninth Circuit.)  While courts have thus far rejected all of these suits at the pleading stage, the complaints reflect a continuing trend towards regulation by litigation, in which individual groups of plaintiffs endeavor to advance policy goals through common law actions.

The most recent case is Alec L. et al. v. Jackson et al.  Casting aside even the pretense of a traditional tort case, where one party seeks relief for damages caused by another party’s conduct, the plaintiffs in Alec L. are suing five federal Executive Branch agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce, and Department of Agriculture), and explicitly seek an order directing those agencies to promulgate regulations addressing greenhouse gas emissions.  Relying on the “public trust doctrine,” an archaic common law concept rarely cited in modern court decisions, the plaintiffs assert that the federal government holds the atmosphere “in trust” for the public, and that these agencies therefore have a fiduciary obligation to protect the atmosphere from greenhouse gas emissions.  In particular, they ask the court to order the agencies to impose immediate and drastic restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in this country (6% annually), with the ultimate goal of virtually eliminating the use of conventional fuels by the end of the century.

There is no reason to think that the claims in Alec L. will fare any better than those in the other tort cases discussed above.  All of these claims seek to impose liability for global climatic conditions that are attributable (if at all) to greenhouse gas emissions from billions of sources around the planet over the course of centuries, not to any particular, small group of defendants.  Moreover, they would all put a federal court in the position of making fundamental policy determinations regarding the proper regulatory approach to issues of national and international importance, ordinarily reserved for the political branches.  Indeed, in this respect, the claims in Alec L. are even more difficult to rationalize than those in AEP, as Alec L. asks the court to commandeer and control agencies of the federal government in a manner directly contrary to pre-existing statutory mandates and executive directives.  However, what Alec L. does show is that advocates for greenhouse gas regulation, undiscouraged by their lack of reception at the Supreme Court earlier this year, will continue re-wrapping their claims to send them to more courts.



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