Climate-change lawsuits bad for environment, Hawaii residents
Maui and Honolulu counties announced their intent to sue energy companies because their products contribute to global climate change.
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Maui and Honolulu counties announced their intent to sue energy companies because their products contribute to global climate change. The counties’ goal, similar to a handful of other lawsuits by local governments on the continent, is to get money to deal with local harms related to climate change. The counties are right to want to do something about climate change, but this litigation is not the answer. If successful, their lawsuits would have no impact on improving climate change.
The litigation itself is misguided. Climate change is plainly a shared challenge. The litigation proposes to scapegoat the energy industry for making products that are essential to modern life, and for which we all — including people on Maui and Oahu — continue to demand and use in spite of the risks. It would have courts set America’s energy policy through adversarial litigation at a critical time when government and the private sector should be joining forces to source and use energy more efficiently.
Let’s consider, though, what would happen if counties, such as Maui and Honolulu, prevailed. To do this, we would first need to conveniently ignore the novelty of their legal claims, namely that global climate change constitutes a “public nuisance” for which energy manufacturers are to blame. No court has ever adopted such an expansive liability theory in spite of nearly two decades of lawsuits.
But let’s pretend courts do an about-face and impose liability. Now what?
For starters, the energy industry would be turned upside down. The companies targeted could not absorb the alleged costs of all climate change impacts in every community in the United States. The local governments with pending suits allege billions of dollars in damages, and success would undoubtedly trigger many other lawsuits.
Although some environmentalists might cheer this result, the reality is that the companies being sued provide us with stable energy that we cannot get other ways. As the federal judge who dismissed climate change lawsuits by Oakland and San Francisco explained, these energy sources are indispensable to powering our homes and businesses and are responsible for countless societal advances and seminal events, including our victory in World War II.
Alternatives like nuclear, wind and solar also come with risks and controversy; even local windfarms have generated protests in Hawaii. Many renewables, including windfarms and solar arrays, rely on fossil fuels for their own production.
Today, fossil fuel companies are leading the effort globally to develop the technological innovations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in energy production. The research-and-development effort needed to deal with climate change, therefore, would take a huge step backward if courts turned the production of fossil fuels into a liability-inducing event.
In the end, energy in the United States would become significantly more expensive and scarce. We would see an exodus of American manufacturing, meaning more products made in China and other countries with less-efficient coal-burning power plants and fewer environmental regulations. When you game it out, the result is clear: a far greater release of greenhouse gases worldwide.
In addition to intensifying climate change, “successful” litigation would be especially severe for Hawaii. The costs for tourists and goods to get to Hawaii would increase sharply, and the potentially crippling impacts on energy production and product manufacturing would worsen what are already the highest costs for housing, consumer goods, and energy in the country.
It’s time counties such as Maui and Honolulu recognize that climate change litigation is not the answer. It’s a distraction, and worse than that, counterproductive to real solutions.
Christopher E. Appel is an attorney in the Washington, D.C.-based Public Policy Group of the law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP, and counsel to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Manufacturer’s Accountability Project.