The defendant oil companies produce and extract fossil fuels that significantly contribute to global warming. As global warming gets worse, sea levels will rise and eventually submerge the plaintiff coastal cities.
Public nuisance claims for global warming are outside the jurisdiction of the court system. Due to the complex nature of issues implicated in a suit of this nature, regulation is better left to the executive and legislative branches.
Scientific reports from the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) of the UN have indicated that global warming has worsened to unprecedented levels and that human influence is extremely likely to be the dominant cause. Experts are in agreement that the burning of fossil fuels has materially increased carbon dioxide levels, which has contributed substantially to global warming. As the world gets hotter and water levels rise, coastal lands in Oakland and San Francisco (plaintiff cities) will need to erect seawalls to protect against inevitable submersion. Defendants have allegedly long known the dangers that fossil fuels pose to the climate yet continued to extract and produce them in massive amounts, all while using campaigns to portray the use of fossil fuels as essential and environmentally responsible.
Should the court grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss the claim that defendants are liable for the anticipated harm that will eventually arise out of rising sea levels?
Yes. The court states that it does not have the authority to resolve such a complex issue, so it dismisses the case.
All parties agree that the science shows that fossil fuels have led to global warming, and that global warming has caused water levels to rise. The evaluation of the claim requires a balancing of the harm against the utility of the defendants’ actions—here, the use of fossil fuels allowed for an industrial revolution that propelled the world into the modern age. The court also points to the fact that all public nuisance claims have been displaced by the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set emission standards. The court recognizes its need to defer to the legislative and executive branches for problems such as this with broad international implications. Congress already entrusted such balancing of complex issues to the executive branch through the EPA, and the courts have no ability to intrude on that authority, especially as it includes foreign relations.