Climate Change Hits Courts, and History

The companies being sued by Spitzer and friends are American Electric Power Co, Southern Co, Xcel Energy, Cinergy and the Tennessee Valley Authority, the last of which is run by the US Federal government. Between them, the companies release over 650 million tons of CO2 every year in their fossil-fuel burning power plants in 20 states, about a quarter of the CO2 released in power production in the US, and about 10% of total annual CO2 releases from all sources (including cars).

The states in the suit are California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. The legal basis is apparently the “federal common law of public nuisance, which provides a right of action to curb air and water pollution emanating from sources in other states. Public nuisance is a well-established legal doctrine that is commonly invoked in environmental cases and forms the basis for much of today’s modern environmental law.” The specific damages cited include “more asthma and other respiratory disease; increased heatstroke and heat-related mortality; loss of beaches, tidal wetlands, salt marshes, coastal property, fisheries and costly impacts to coastal and urban infrastructure (tunnels, subways, water treatment plants, and airport facilities) due to rising sea levels; loss of mountain snowpack, a major fresh water source in California; property damage and human safety risks due to drought and floods; loss of Northeast hardwood forests; and widespread harm to wildlife.” In many places this is already happening.

Spencer Weart’s site includes a relatively short summary, the data on temperature and CO2, simple and more comprehensive theoretical models, the history of public reaction and government action (or inaction), and much much more, all extensively hyperlinked together in encyclopedic fashion.

Weart also includes a personal note:

Of course climate science is full of uncertainties, and nobody claims to know exactly what the climate will do. That very uncertainty is part of what, I am confident, is known beyond doubt — our planet’s climate can change, tremendously and unpredictably. Beyond that we can conclude (with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2001 report) that it is very likely that significant global warming is coming in our lifetimes.This surely brings a likelihood of harm, widespread and grave. The few who contest these facts are either ignorant, or so committed to their viewpoint that they will seize on any excuse to deny the danger.
[…]

Many things can be done right now that are not only cheap and effective, but will actually pay for themselves through benefits entirely aside from acting against global warming. Americans in particular — the world’s most promiscuous emitters of greenhouse gases and the ones best placed to do something about it — can set an example. A good start would be to remove the government subsidies for fossil fuels, which are huge, mostly hidden, and economically unsound. Another sensible step would be to raise the tax on gasoline by a few dollars (comparable to what nearly all other industrial nations pay, and compensated by lowering other taxes) to cover the actual costs of roads, traffic congestion, and medical care for accident injuries and illness due to smog. […]

Like many threats, global warming calls for greater government activity, and that rightly worries people. But in the 21st century the alternative to government action is not individual liberty: it is corporate power. And the role of large corporations in this story has been mostly negative, a tale of self-interested obfuscation and short-sighted delay. The atmosphere is a classic case of a “commons” — like the old shared English meadows, where any given individual could only gain by adding more of his own cows, although everyone lost from the overgrazing. In such cases the public interest can only be protected by public rules.

Much more likely than not, global warming is upon us. We should expect weather patterns to continue to change and the seas to continue to rise in an ever worsening pattern through our lifetimes and on into our grandchildren’s. The question has graduated from the scientific community: climate change is a major social, economic, and political issue. Nearly everyone in the world will need to adjust. It will be hardest for the poorer groups and nations among us, but nobody is exempt. Citizens will need reliable information, the flexibility to change their personal lives, and efficient and appropriate help from all levels of government. So it is an important job, in some ways our top priority, to improve the communication of knowledge, and to strengthen democratic control in governance everywhere. The spirit of fact-gathering, rational discussion, toleration of dissent, and negotiation of an evolving consensus, which has characterized the climate science community, can serve well as a model.

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