Webinar Recap: State Courts, Climate Torts, and Their Role in Securing Justice for Communities

David Flores

April 1, 2020

Hundreds of thousands of Americans, from the southern California surf town of Imperial Beach to the rowhouse-lined blocks of Baltimore, are banding together to bring lawsuits against several dozen of the most powerful and wealthy corporations in the world. What do these residents and those from various coastal cities; the state of Rhode Island; Boulder, Colorado; and members of the West Coast's largest commercial fishing trade organization have in common?

All of these communities and businesses have been harmed – and are likely to experience future harms – as a result of global climate change, attributed to decades of production, promotion, and disinformation by multinational fossil fuel corporations. Government and business leaders are suing to hold these fossil fuel producers accountable, seeking compensation and other forms of redress, in state courts using tort law.

While residents may all suffer some harm from increased flooding driven by more intense rainfall or sea-level rise, many also recognize that there is a social equity dimension attached to the harm from the climate crisis. For example, the link between historic redlining and disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color contributes to an increased risk of harm from extreme heat and air pollution. Local governments suing on behalf of their residents are also working to deliver the policies and programs necessary to protect their most vulnerable populations.

Last week, we hosted the third installment of our climate justice webinar series. The webinar focused on the growing climate tort litigation movement, explored why litigants are bringing these suits, and discussed where we may see additional litigation in the next several years.

CPR Member Scholars Karen Sokol and Alexandra Klass discussed a number of cases, including a recent decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that sent Baltimore's case back to state court. Along with a new filing by conservation organizations against "Big Plastic," these lawsuits illustrate that the state tort movement against the fossil fuel industry is likely to broaden and evolve.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, told the story of how "the Blob," an abnormal area of warm water in the Pacific Ocean, led to persistent fishery closures, lost revenues, and a lawsuit against Chevron and other oil and gas companies that have contributed to the climate crisis. He also described how the goals of his organization's lawsuit and the objectives of his members diverge from other movements of climate litigation.

Sokol, a professor at Loyola University—New Orleans College of Law, situated the state climate tort movement within the history and present-day landscape of domestic and international climate litigation. She also discussed how pending state climate lawsuits could impact or be impacted by the fate of other notable climate suits, such as the federal lawsuit by youth plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States.

Klass, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, described the barriers, opportunities, and likely future developments in state climate tort litigation brought by jurisdictions in the Midwest that have suffered substantially from climate-linked flooding, drought, and other impacts. Klass also drew parallels with other movements in state tort litigation against manufacturers and distributors of tobacco and opioids.

To hear more directly from our panelists, you can watch our webinar on YouTube or down below. For even more analysis of state climate torts and CPR's policy recommendations, read our recent report, Climate Justice: State Courts and the Fight for Equity.

For more on climate justice, please watch for information on our next webinar in the series, which is coming soon. You can also watch the first two installments in our climate justice series, and you can take a peek at CPR webinars on a variety of other topics on our website.



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