Save Article Instructions

Important global warming case moves to Supreme Court

Bob Tippee

The US Supreme Court plans to address legal questions with potential to expose emitters of greenhouse gases to huge liability for harm from natural phenomena.

The court agreed to hear an appeal in a case comparable to one in which oil companies are said to be liable for Gulf Coast damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The case now moving onto the high court’s agenda involves the electric-power industry. In Connecticut v. American Electric Power, environmental groups and the state of New York claimed emissions of carbon dioxide by major power producers aggravated global warming and caused beach erosion, drought, and floods.

A New York judge originally dismissed the case, saying it rested on political questions. An appellate court overturned that decision in a ruling now under appeal.

Movement to the Supreme Court has ramifications for the case involving oil companies and Hurricane Katrina: Comer v. Murphy Oil. In that case, an appellate court refused to rule after several judges withdrew because of conflicts of interest, essentially inviting parties to seek a Supreme Court ruling.

Another oil industry case, Kivalina v. ExxonMobil, also is working through the courts. In it, native Alaskans say warming caused by oil-company emissions is melting arctic sea ice and hurting fishing.

These cases pivot on the Supreme Court’s finding in 2007 that greenhouse gases represent air pollutants subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. Like that ruling, they stretch logic precariously.

If the high court rules for original plaintiffs, all prosperous companies that emit greenhouse gases will fall under siege from lawsuits demanding compensation for damage sustained in any natural disaster that might be linked to global warming.

The threat arises because a majority of Supreme Court justices in 2007 imposed legal certitude on uncertain science.

Their honors can’t be pleased with the consequent hazard. Politics and the tort bar now misrepresent their 2007 decision about legal definitions as definitive science. The clock needs unwinding. It’s set to detonate an economic bomb.

(Online Dec. 13, 2010; author’s e-mail:

To access this Article, go to: