Saturday, March 22, 2008

Paramount Shift in the Logic of Climate Change

I came across this article this article in US News and World Report on climate change and the courts and I thought I’d blog about it because it ties back to something I blogged about a while back (the Lawyers will Save Us).

This article discusses the Alaskan village Kivalina (6-mile long, 400 inhabitants) where the permafrost has melted leading to the erosion of 70 to 80 feet of the coastline which is threatening several of the 150 structures on the island, including its school. One solution presented is to actually move the entire village (cost anywhere from $95 million to $400 million). This sum is huge for such a small size village where the poverty rate is twice the national average and thus the inhabitants have decided to pursue another option: they are suing energy companies (24 oil, gas and electric companies) because they blame them for the problem of global warming which led to the melting of the permafrost. The citizens of Kivalina argue that the companies mentioned in the suit have created a public nuisance and thus they are seeking damages from those companies.

The plaintiffs allege that the companies being sued worked to develop studies that cast doubt on the effects of global warming (I guess similar to the studies that Dr. Webber shared with us in class). This line of logic is similar to the lawsuits against Big Tobacco in the 90s which showed that cigarette companies knowingly withheld the hazards of smoking from the public and used industry sponsored groups to spread misinformation.

Some argue that the citizens of Kivalina, along with all other global warming plaintiffs, have a stronger argument than tobacco plaintiffs, who chose to smoke, because they simply didn’t do anything to bring about this harm that has befallen them.

Of course it will be a long time (years, if not decades) before we know who will prevail in this suit. Moreover, even if the citizens of Kivalina prevail it will be very difficult for the court to assign blame and to award damages since the sources of GHGs (which supposedly caused this problem in the first place) are not known and their number is very large.

However, the fact that such cases are making their way to courts is huge because it marks a paramount shift in the logic of climate change. A few years ago the discussion was whether it is real or man-made. Now the discussion is who is to blame and how do we make them pay! Time will tell what will happen but it sure seems that the winds of change on climate change are blowing.

Below is a link to the article from US News & World Report:

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