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Climate Tort Claims Remain Meritless, Regardless of Venue

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review Suncor Energy (U.S.A.) Inc. v. Board of County Commissioners of Boulder County and related petitions asking the Court to review federal appellate court rulings that sent climate tort lawsuits against American energy producers to state court.

MAP Special Counsel Phil Goldberg pointed out in a statement reacting to the Court’s decision that, regardless of where the cases are heard, they lack any legal or factual foundation: “even under state law, selling Americans the energy they need and use every day is not a liability inducing event.”

MAP has published various materials over the past few years, including Before You Sue and Beyond the Courtroom, explaining why climate change litigation does not advance climate change solutions. These materials show that climate litigation would increase energy prices for American families and businesses, expose the political nature of this litigation and shows that the only path for meaningfully addressing climate change is to invest in innovations that can change the ways we produce and use energy.

Indeed, courts assessing the merits of climate litigation have pointed out that these lawsuits are more about policymaking than adjudicating traditional liability law. Most notably, in American Electric Power (AEP) v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling written by Justice Ginsburg saying the courts should not be setting climate policy “by judicial decree” in a case-by-case ad hoc fashion. Rather, Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency are “better equipped to do the job.”

In that case, the Obama administration said liability is not appropriate because climate change is “a result of the actions of innumerable sources of various kinds of emissions from around the world over many decades” and impacts nearly everyone. It is “impossible to consider the sort of focused and more geographically proximate effects” raised in litigation. There would be “almost unimaginably broad categories of both potential plaintiffs and potential defendants,” making who to blame “capacious.”

New York City’s climate tort lawsuit was dismissed in 2021 for many of these same reasons. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said that even if you take the allegations as true, no entities—including energy companies—are liable for global climate change: “Global warming presents a uniquely international problem of national concern. It is therefore not well-suited to the application of state law.”

And, a federal judge in 2018 explained the limited role of the judiciary in these cases: “The problem [of global warming] deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case.”

Even in allowing these cases to go to state courts, the federal circuits acknowledged these cases are not traditional lawsuits. For example, a Ninth Circuit panel said the litigation raises “novel and sweeping causes of action.” And the Third Circuit appreciated that the plaintiffs “take issue with the oil companies’ entire business, from production through sale,” as well as their use by consumers.

For elected officials who want to fight climate change, this litigation is not the answer. The challenge of our time is developing technologies and public policies so that the world can produce and use energy in ways that are affordable for people and sustainable for the planet. These lawsuits do not create more efficient energy sources, reduce emissions or capture carbon. They are groundless distractions.