Tags: climate | change | suits

Bill Allows Citizens to Sue for Climate Change Damages

Friday, 10 Apr 2009 12:11 PM

By Dave Eberhart

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"Victims" of climate change would be able to sue the federal government or private businesses over greenhouse gas emissions under language buried in the House climate bill, according to a report in the Washington Times.

Under the provision, anyone "who has suffered, or reasonably expects to suffer, a harm attributable, in whole or in part," to government inaction to file a "citizen suit."

The term “harm” is broadly defined as “any effect of air pollution (including climate change), currently occurring or at risk of occurring.”

The United Nations scientific panel studying climate change predicts in its latest report that the global climate is likely to rise between 3.5 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit if the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reaches twice the level of 1750.

By 2100, sea levels are likely to rise between 7 to 23 inches, it said, and the changes now underway will continue for centuries to come, according to a report in the New York Times.

If the worst case climate scenario comes to pass and the House provision makes its way into the final climate bill signed by the President, lawyers may be in for a field day of litigation.

“You could be spawning lawsuits at almost any place [climate-change modeling] computers place at harm’s risk,” Bill Kovacs, energy lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Times.

There are set limits, however, to the potential windfalls for the lawyers and their citizen clients.

As presently written, the bill would cap the damages culled from the government at $75,000 each year for each individual suit.

Expansion of the Clean Air Act to allow “citizen suits” on climate change has long been a goal among environmental groups – although the measure has never succeeded. One theory pres3ented by advocates is that the citizen suits will force compliance on the part of a sometimes recalcitrant government.

According to the Washington Times report, under the House bill, if a judge rules against the government, new rules would have to be put in play to correct the problems associated with climate change.

If a judge rules against a company, it would have to purchase additional "carbon emission allowances" through a cap-and-trade established by Congress.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cap-and-trade systems can be best summed up as “pollution credits.” Overall air quality goals are set for an area and specific sources of air pollution (such as power plants, waste incineration facilities, etc.) are given a certain number of allowances, which represent the amount of various pollutants that the organization or facility is allowed to discharge.

Facilities that come in under that allowable limit because of air pollution control systems can then sell their leftover allowances to other facilities and organizations on the open market. This allows the facilities that buy up such allowances (pollution credits) to pollute more, because other facilities are polluting less.

Whatever the resolution of one of these citizen suits, the total amount paid out each year is capped at $1.5 million per individual case, committee staff told the Washington Times.

David Doniger, senior counsel with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the House bill provision follows a key environmental ruling from the Supreme Court allowing states to sue the federal government for damages from climate change – largely because of eroded shorelines caused by rising sea levels.

That landmark decision, however, did not set the groundwork for individual citizens to file lawsuits.

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