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Global warming and other environmental concerns

Fighting global warming in the courts

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Some environmentalists are challenging polluting companies and governments in the courts. These cases are difficult to prosecute. They rarely win large settlements. It is difficult to prove a cause and effect relationship between a single company's pollution and specific damage to the environment or to people's health. However, they are may be laying the groundwork for what may be major successes in the future. This is somewhat reminiscent of the early cases against tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. They did not succeed initially, but have since returned massive settlements. Even if not successful, court cases keep the matter before the public and result in pressure on politicians.

Court cases have had a more successful track record when they claim that existing regulations were not being properly enforced by the government.

Peter Roderick, co-director of Climate Justice Program in London, UK, said:

"Judges are finally starting to accept what scientists have long said: that greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change and need to be reduced."

Eric Posner, a law professor from the University of Chicago wrote a paper titled "Climate Change and International Human Rights Litigation: A Critical Appraisal." He said:

"The main purpose of litigation may not be to persuade courts to determine greenhouse gas emission policy, but to attract public attention and pressure governments to reach political solutions, including treaties and domestic law."

The Associated Press reported:

"Hari Osofsky, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, said it's important to remember that such litigation is still in its early stages, and that most of it is seeking regulatory action, not damages."

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Some examples:

bullet2004: A Victoria state court ruled that the state minister for planning had violated a law by telling an expert panel to ignore global warming implications when it investigated a proposal to enlarge a coal mine. The panel was required to reconsider their decision; the expansion was later approved.
bullet2006: A New South Wales court ruled that Centennial Hunter Proprietary Ltd. had to evaluate all possible effects of greenhouse emission from the mining operation at Anvil Hill Project mine to the final use by the customer. Again, the project was approved.
bullet2007: A second case involving Anvil Hill Project mine is currently appealing a government decision that the mine does not come under the jurisdiction of Australia's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. That act is intended to protect world heritage sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef and native species of plants and animals.

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bullet2007: Canada signed the Kyoto Accord but successive Liberal and Conservative governments have largely ignored their obligations. The country has fallen far short of its mandatory maximum CO2 emission levels. Friends of the Earth Canada have initiated a lawsuit claiming that the federal government has violating Canadian law
bulletUnited States: All efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission in the U.S. are of great importance because the U.S. and China are the largest polluters in the world.
bullet2006: The state of California is suing Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota, claiming that their vehicles are contributing to global warming. They allege that their vehicles belch 318 million tons (289 metric tonnes) of CO2 each year into the atmosphere. They claim that this damages the coast line, water supply, and increases maintenance costs.
bullet2007: By its usual 5 to 4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on its first global warming case. On APR-02 they determined that greenhouse gasses from motor vehicles are an air pollutant. They told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its 2003 refusal to regulate CO2 and other emissions from new cars and trucks. Martha Coakley, Attorney General of Massachusetts said: "As a result of today's landmark ruling, EPA can no longer hide behind the fiction that it lacks any regulatory authority to address the problem of global warming." The block of four strict constructionist judges -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Scalia, and Thomas -- all dissented. 2 More information
bullet2007: Eight states -- California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin -- have jointed New York City in a joint lawsuit against five large power companies. The plaintiffs charge that carbon dioxide from electric generating plants is contributing to global warming. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said: "Global warming is an important issue for our country, for our state and for our world. It can have enormous consequences.'' Miller claims that power plants owned by the defendants -- American Power Company, The Southern Company, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Xcel Energy, and Cinergy Corporation -- generate over 650 million tons of CO2 yearly. This is about 25% of the total released by America's power plants. He said that power plants account for 40 percent of the country's total carbon dioxide emissions. The plaintiffs are asking for a federal court order that would require the companies to reduce emissions by 1 to 3% each year. 3
bullet2007: A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the state of California. It claimed that the car emissions were responsible for a significant part of global warming. This is causing increased flooding and other disasters. This forces the state to spend  millions of dollars on repairs. California sued Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and the U.S. subsidiaries of Honda, Nissan and Toyota.

The judge ruled that it is impossible for the court to determine to what extent carmakers were responsible for global warming and the damages that it causes. Other industries, animals and other natural sources are responsible for part of the problem. 4
bullet2007: Eleven states and several environmental groups are attempting to force the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recompute its vehicle mileage standards, and to include CO2 emissions in the calculations.
bulletAn group representing 155,000 Inuits living in Arctic regions in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland presented a petition to the 34-nation Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They claim that CO2 emissions within the United States are a major cause of global warming, and that this should be considered a human-rights violation. Eric Posner of the University of Chicago said:
"If a plausible claim can be made that the emission of greenhouse gases violates human rights, and that these human rights are embodied in treaty or customary international law, then American courts may award damages to the victims." 1

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Thomas Wagner, "Battle over climate change is being fought in world's courts," The Associated Press, 2007-SEP-22, at:  http://www.usatoday.com/

  2. James Vicini, "Court rules against Bush in global warming case," Reuters, 2007-APR-02, at: http://www.reuters.com/
  3. Todd Dorman, "Iowa joins lawsuit battling global warming," Quad-City Times, 2007-JUL-21, at: http://www.qctimes.com.
  4. Paul Elias, "Judge tosses Calif global warming suit," Quad-City Times, 2007-SEP-18, at: http://www.qctimes.com/

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-SEP-27
Latest update: 2007-SEP-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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