Thursday, February 25, 2010

John Schwartz: Courts as Battlefields in Climate Fights

(Courtesy of Russell Williamson)

Courts as Battlefields in Climate Fights
by John Schwartz
The New York Times

Tiny Kivalina, Alaska, does not have a hotel, a restaurant or a movie theater. But it has a very big lawsuit that might affect the way the nation deals with climate change.

Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo village of 400 perched on a barrier island north of the Arctic Circle, is accusing two dozen fuel and utility companies of helping to cause the climate change that it says is accelerating the island’s erosion.

Blocks of sea ice used to protect the town’s fragile coast from October on, but “we don’t have buildup right now, and it is January,” said Janet Mitchell, Kivalina’s administrator. “We live in anxiety during high-winds seasons.”

The village wants the companies, including Exxon, Mobil, Shell Oil, and many others, to pay the costs of relocating to the mainland, which could amount to as much as $400 million.

The case is one of three major lawsuits filed by environmental groups, private lawyers and state officials around the nation against big producers of heat-trapping gases. And though the village faces a difficult battle, the cases are gathering steam.

In recent months, two federal appeals courts reversed decisions by federal district courts to dismiss climate-change lawsuits, allowing the cases to go forward. In Connecticut, environmental lawyers joined forces with attorneys general of eight states and the City of New York seeking a court order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In Mississippi, Gulf Coast property owners claim that industry-produced emissions that contribute to climate change increased the potency of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

And although a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., dismissed the Kivalina suit in October, the village is appealing the decision.

Tracy D. Hester, who has taught a course in climate lawsuits at the University of Houston law school, said that with the issues “very much in play” in three circuits of the federal court system, “the game pieces are being set for eventual Supreme Court review.”

The cases need not even get that far to have an impact, said James E. Tierney, the director of the National State Attorneys General program at Columbia Law School. Kivalina alleged in its complaint that the industry conspired “to suppress the awareness of the link” between emissions and climate change through “front groups, fake citizens organizations and bogus scientific bodies.”

That claim echoes those in suits against the tobacco industry that ultimately led to industry settlements and increased government regulation.

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