Courts Continue to Put the Brakes on Climate Change Lawsuits as the One-Year Anniversary of the San Francisco and Oakland Cases Passes

Executive Director of the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project.

It has now been one year since public officials in San Francisco and Oakland teamed up with trial lawyers to sue manufacturers over the issue of global climate change. While the cases made headlines, they had much more trouble getting traction in the courts.  So, where do manufacturers stand one year later?

In recent months, judges around the country have started putting the brakes on these lawsuits, agreeing with what manufacturers have been saying all along, that these issues are not for the courts to decide.  This summer, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup rejected the public nuisance suits by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland.  He stated that “the problem deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case” and concluded that the legislative and executive branches are better situated to address this global issue rather than the judiciary. 

It’s undeniably good news that the courts have thrown out not only the San Francisco and Oakland cases, but also another high profile case in New York was dismissed.  In New York, U.S. District Court Judge John Keenan said it would be “illogical” to allow tort claims for global climate change “when courts have found these matters are areas of federal concern” requiring “a uniform national solution.”  At an earlier hearing, the judge spoke to the heart of the matter, asking the City of New York, which was the plaintiff in the case, if it was still using the very products it blamed the defendants for producing.  The court ultimately concluded that climate change is a transnational issue involving more than a few energy manufacturers and that the judiciary is not the proper venue to address this issue.

Skepticism over this litigation is also shared by the broader legal and political communities.  The Department of Justice filed a brief in the California case opposing the use of state tort law to drive national emissions policy.  It explained that the U.S. Supreme Court has already rejected similar climate change litigation under federal law and that if “federal common law is a poor fit, then state law is even less suited to address the international scope of the climate change problem.”

State attorneys general from 15 states filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs in both the New York and California cases.  They agreed that Congress, in delegating to federal regulators whether and how to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, did not leave room for state or local governments to bring lawsuits over so-called climate change injuries.  “The questions of global climate change and its effects – and the proper balance of regulatory and commercial activity – are political questions not suited for resolution by any court,” they wrote.

Although a number of other public nuisance lawsuits remain pending, the recent dismissals expose the flaws in this litigation that are common to all of these suits.  The courts are not the proper venue to address this issue and the handful of energy manufacturers pulled into the litigation, as well as other manufacturers, should not be held responsible for a global issue or made to foot the bill for local infrastructure projects.  Manufacturing employs nearly 12.5 million workers in this country and accounts for 8.5 percent of the total workforce.

On the one-year anniversary of the San Francisco and Oakland cases, other municipalities considering filing baseless lawsuits should take note.  The California and New York rulings are indicators that this litigation stands little chance to triumph in the courtroom.

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