By Jason Mark
Can any one group of actors be held responsible for the damages caused by global climate change?
That was the central question argued in federal court on Thursday as attorneys representing San Francisco and Oakland tried to beat back efforts by ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell to have a judge throw out a potentially groundbreaking climate change related lawsuit.
The nearly three-hour hearing was the latest round in a burgeoning effort by cities and counties nationwide to hold major fossil fuel producers accountable for climate change-related damages. Last year, seven California cities and counties sued the oil majors, claiming that their production and sale of fossil fuels—even as they were aware of the risks of CO2 emissions—constitute a public nuisance. Since then, similar suits have been filed by New York City; Boulder and two Colorado counties; and King County, Washington, home to the city of Seattle. (For more, see SIERRA's May/June cover story, "The Case for Climate Reparations.")
Thursday's hearing represented the first major test of such lawsuits as Judge William Alsup considered whether the Oakland and San Francisco complaint should move forward. The defendants challenged the lawsuit on a broad range of grounds, forcing Judge Alsup, a Clinton-appointee known for being an idiosyncratic jurist, to say at one point, "There are a lot of arguments here. As soon as I focus on one, you run off to another one."
The defendants' arguments for dismissing the suit centered on two main questions: whether the Federal District Court for Northern California is an appropriate jurisdiction to decide the case, and, of larger concern, whether the lawsuits might be displaced by existing federal laws and policies.
Arguments hinged on a welter of legal terms such as "general jurisdiction" versus "personal jurisdiction" versus "specific jurisdiction," while also touching on the distinctions between a holding company and an operating company. (Lawyers for Royal Dutch Shell maintained that the Netherlands-based multinational corporation is a holding company, and therefore has no agents in California.) In the course of the arguments it became clear that the very scale of the contested issue—global climate change—further complicates the questions of jurisdiction. The defendants argued that it's hard, if not impossible, to establish direct causation for a specific harm when the source of that harm is billions of people burning fossil fuels worldwide.
"[The plaintiffs] have decided that they do not want to and cannot disaggregate the conduct that leads to their harm," Jaren Janghorbani, an attorney representing ExxonMobil, said. "They cannot attribute any of the harm they are alleging to the company's activities in California."
Jonathan Hughes, a lawyer representing BP, echoed that point. "The amount [of CO2 emissions from its California operations] that could be attributed to BP would be a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent. And under the but-for argument, if BP hadn't produced any fossil fuels, would they have still suffered an injury? The answer is yes. We are talking about a speck in the ocean."
In response, Benjamin Krass, a lawyer representing San Francisco and Oakland, said the oil company attorneys were "muddying up" the but-for argument—the principle of tort law that establishes liability. "The end result of the defendants' argument is that a company that does business everywhere should be held accountable nowhere."
In the end, Judge Alsup said he didn't have enough information to make a decision on the jurisdiction question. He gave both sides at least 60 days for a discovery process and depositions to establish whether each of the defendants has sufficient business operations in California for the two California cities to claim injury.
That left Chevron, the only defendant headquartered in California, to argue for dismissal based on the merits of the case. Chevron attorney Theodore Boutrous, Jr. began by saying that the cities' claims stretch federal common law and that "the plaintiffs are asking this court to throw caution to the wind." Boutrous went on to argue that a complex issue like climate change "should be committed to those who write the laws rather than those who interpret them." And Congress, Boutrous argued, has again and again passed laws in favor of fossil fuel production. "Congress has made clear that energy production is not a public nuisance; it is a public necessity."
As a rebuttal, Steve Berman, the lead counsel for the two cities, argued that the cities' complaints are not nearly as novel as the defendants make it seem—but instead merely the application of ancient laws to contemporary circumstances. "The law of nuisance has been around forever, and it has responded to changes in mankind. What we are doing is applying hundreds of years of law to a new situation." Berman later said, "We allege that this was a deliberate nuisance, based on phony science."
The San Francisco and Oakland case has generated a great deal of attention among legal scholars and climate change activists. In March, Judge Alsup held an unusual "climate science tutorial" as a preliminary step in the case—an event that attracted so big a crowd, the court had to reserve an overflow room. The case has also become a proxy battle of sorts. Fifteen states with Republican attorneys general—including Indiana, Colorado, Kansas and Louisiana—filed an amicus brief in support of the oil corporations' position. Meanwhile, California, New Jersey and Washington filed their own brief backing the cities' arguments.
The federal government has also weighed in. Two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief supporting the five oil companies, and on Thursday, Eric Grant, a deputy assistant attorney general, was given time to express the federal government's opposition to the San Francisco and Oakland suits. "It is upon Congress, not the courts, to prescribe policy in areas of special interest," Grant said. "As this court knows, in respect to domestic emissions, the kind of national policy-making sought by plaintiffs is inappropriate … [Climate change] is a complex issue involving trade-offs affecting a nation of more than 300 million people. Individual federal district courts lack the competence to undertake that task."
The federal government's arguments appeared to give Judge Alsup pause, even as he continued to express exasperation with the legal maneuverings of some of the defendants. "There is no court in the history of the universe that has extended this [federal common law] to global warming," the judge said. "The United States is pointing to Supreme Court language that judges like me have to move slowly … There's no doubt there will be some sea rise. But will it be in 75 years or 25 years? We don't know."
To which Berman, the plaintiff's attorney, responded, "That's what the trial is for. Today we're talking about a motion to dismiss."
Whether the case will ever make it to a trial is, of course, now in the hands of Judge Alsup.
Chevron Presents on Climate Science While Oil Companies Move to Dismiss Landmark Case https://t.co/5G7gd1Ondw… https://t.co/7LzfhEl7y3— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1521729666.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA magazine.
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By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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