Two Strikes Against Common Law Approaches to Climate Change: The Atmosphere Is Not A Public Trust

Yesterday, the District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the so-called “public trust” climate change law suit. I will certainly give the plaintiffs in these cases credit for both originality and persistence. Legal merit and good public policy are another matter.

In any case, the plaintiffs sued EPA and various other federal agencies, seeking a finding that the agencies have failed adequately to protect a public trust asset, also known as the atmosphere, from climate change. The plaintiffs requested an injunction requiring that the agencies take actions necessary to reduce CO2 emissions by 6% yearly, beginning in 2013.

It did not take the Court long to dismiss plaintiffs’ arguments – and the case. The Court’s opinion has two critical holdings. First, since there can be no diversity action against the United States, the plaintiffs do not have access to federal courts unless there is a federal question. However, as the Court noted, the public trust doctrine is a creature of state law; there is no federal public trust doctrine. 

Secondly, the Court concluded that, even if there ever had been a federal public trust doctrine, any such doctrine has been displaced by the federal Clean Air Act. Here, the Court relied squarely on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut. The plaintiffs here tried to limit AEP to displacement of public nuisance claims, but the Court was having none of it, pointing out that AEP clearly stated that it was not federal public nuisance claims that were displaced by the CAA, but federal common law claims generally that were displaced.

Moreover, notwithstanding the plaintiffs’ creativity, the Court noted that:

"the question at issue in the Amer. Elec. Power Co. case is not appreciably different from the question presented here—whether a federal court may make determinations regarding to what extent carbon-dioxide emissions should be reduced, and thereafter order federal agencies to effectuate a policy of its own making. The Amer. Elec. Power. Co. opinion expressed concern that the plaintiffs in that case were seeking to have federal courts, in the first instance, determine what amount of carbon-dioxide emissions is unreasonable and what level of reduction is practical, feasible and economically viable."

And that really is the issue. Even if one believes that the government should be taking more aggressive action on climate change – and I certainly am among those who think it should be doing so – having the courts decide what level of reductions are necessary, and by when, is nuts. It’s just not a way to make public policy on the most complex environmental issue of our time.

Back to the drawing board for citizen plaintiffs. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.