In the run-up to the 2020 election, voters have been tuning in to a series of debates, and town halls featuring the Democratic candidates, several of which were dedicated solely to global warming and climate change (GWCC). However, new polling found GWCC “barely registers as a priority issue.” Voters are more concerned about the economy, jobs and healthcare. California voters share those same concerns with added worries about the state’s homelessness crisis. In New York they are concerned about economic development and every day issues like road paving.
Then why have local officials in California, New York City, and elsewhere chosen to sue energy companies over climate change, an issue low on the list of voters’ priorities? No rational person disputes that climates are always changing. Nor does any rational person dispute that we must also address the issue of climate change. The debate then becomes how we take on this global challenge. At the recent United Nations climate summit, 500 scientists sent a letter urging leaders to follow a climate policy based on “… realistic economics and genuine concern for those harmed by costly but unnecessary attempts at mitigation.” Litigation fails to meet these criteria.
These lawsuits—and ones filed in Colorado, Maryland, Washington State, and Rhode Island—utilize the legal theory of “public nuisance.” Plaintiffs’ attorneys working on a contingency fee basis who stand to pocket millions should they find courtroom success in are driving this litigation.
The San Francisco, Oakland, and New York City cases were dismissed last year, but are currently under appeal in federal circuit court. Now conflicting legal rulings in five, state-level, district courts could bring muddied legal decisions. To date, courts are unsure where to adjudicate these weather-related claims; or whether voters, city councils, legislatures, Congress, and the U.S. executive branch should decide energy policies.
Legal victories may fill attorneys’ coffers, but they won’t do much to solve the global problems at hand. Over 2 billion people are without electricity, and 600 million of them are in Africa. According to the U.S Energy Information Administration, “global energy-related CO2 emissions will increase through 2050.” This growth is coming from China, India, and Africa through population growth, economic advancement, and higher energy usage rates. Approximately $2 trillion a year of energy investments is needed until 2040 to keep pace.
How would these lawsuits address the new, booming, high-emitting “Asian Century?” The plaintiffs aren’t addressing that coal’s high-emission growth is exploding globally, but coal-fired generation declined by 40% in the U.S from 2008-17 by switching to natural gas-fired power plants.
Based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2017 most global emission growth is coming from non-OECD nations. In Congressional testimony, using this knowledge, and advanced climate modeling from the Heritage Foundation, Kevin D. Dayaratna, Ph.D., Senior Statistician and Research Programmer at Heritage said on February 24, 2017 to the U.S. Congress Subcommittee on Environment and Oversight Committee on Science and Technology: The U.S., “in fact could cut its carbon dioxide emissions 100 percent, and it would not make a difference in abating global warming.” This demonstrates how complex, intertwined, and multifaceted environmental questions are to solve, and the folly of pinpointing blame on a handful of energy companies in California.
It was U.S. energy companies that allowed our nation, and California to reduce emissions while meeting the Kyoto Protocol through lowered carbon outputs. Furthermore, Bloomberg has reported the five biggest energy manufacturers are greener by reducing emissions 13% the last ten years, which was far ahead of the U.S. reduction of 4.9% during this timeframe.
Not only are energy companies more environmentally conscious, they are also greatly contributing to our nation’s bottom line and job market when “80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.” It’s legally unclear how they are liable for these allegations when over 6,000 products come from a barrel of crude oil. Modern life in California without oil and petroleum is impossible.
But litigation proponents in California, New York City, and other supporters continue pushing damaging lawsuits against energy companies in the belief that chaotically intermittent, mathematically unstable renewables will continue keeping courtroom lights on where they are arguing these claims. Simply put, a green energy revolution is still decades away from happening, and it will come from scientists instead of lawyers.
Let’s put the gavel down, and work together to fix problems. This will never occur in a deposition hearing. The better model is the California Energy Commission’s “Local Government Challenge” that has given grants to forty municipalities investing in emission reduction goals.
Technology, human ingenuity, and the quest for enlightenment will lead this new energy revolution. The Manufacturers Accountability Project has highlighted how they are part of this enlightened revolution to reduce carbon emissions while advancing sustainability efforts, and powering our communities. Others are also advancing pioneering technology to remove carbon from the air.
With climate litigation, the plaintiffs, and their supporters are setting up a false choice between commercial activity, manufacturing, and environmental stewardship. Instead of making fossil fuels into the enemies of infrastructure and human life let’s build together on finding solutions.