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Climate Change In Court

April 20, 2010

All that pondering of the unprecedented challenges of climate change was elicited, for better or worse, by two articles today from Slate, “The People v. CO2” and “Attractive Nuisance,” which address recent efforts by those affected by climate change to sue emitters. The first describes the Federated States of Micronesia’s suit against a Czech power company, in which the Micronesian government is using the international law principle of transboundary harm to prevent the power company from refitting one of the dirtiest power plants in Europe in order to continue operating it for another 25 years. The second rounds up various similar cases currently in federal courts, the most significant of which is AEP v. Connecticut. In that case, a federal circuit court ruled the greenhouse gas emissions qualified as a public nuisance which gave the plaintiffs in the case, a group of states and environmental organizations, the standing to sue the defendant, a power company, to compel the company to reduce its emissions.

As both of the articles note, justly assigning blame in a way that would allow an entity harmed by climate change to sue another that has caused it is exceedingly difficult. That being said, the truth is that there is blame to be assigned and there are damages to be redressed, even if we don’t have a full framework to do so yet. These suits are the beginning of the continuing process of our legal system (and the international legal system) creating and revising that framework. More importantly, however, the suits could be a prod for politicians, especially legislators here in the United States, to work towards a political solution that will make legal action unnecessary.

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