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Judge dismisses Kivalina suit claiming global warming damage

U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong has dismissed the federal public nuisance lawsuit filed by the Alaskan native village of Kivalina against oil, coal and power companies, concluding the question of global warming's damage to the environment is appropriately left in the political sphere.

In an order filed September 30, Judge Armstrong of the Northern District of California granted the defendants' motions:

In their Rule 12(b)(1) motions, Defendants contend that Plaintiffs' claims are not justiciable under the political question doctrine, and that Plaintiffs otherwise lack standing under Article III of the United States Constitution. Having read and considered the papers filed in connection with this matter, and being fully informed, the Court hereby GRANTS Defendants' motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction.

Judge Armstrong clearly distinguishes the claims made by the Kivalina plaintiffs from those in the Connecticut v. American Electric Power case (opinion) decided September 21 by the Second Circuit, a federal public nuisance suit brought against power companies by several states and an environmental group.

Based on the judiciary's history of addressing "new and complex problems," including those concerning environmental pollution, the [Second Circuit] court concluded that "[w]ell-settled principles of tort and public nuisance law provide appropriate guidance to the district court in assessing Plaintiffs' claims and federal courts are competent to deal with these issues" such that their global warming concerns can "be addressed through principled adjudication." This Court is not so sanguine. While such principles may provide sufficient guidance in some novel cases, this is not one of them.

The cases cited by Plaintiffs as well as the AEP court involved nuisance claims founded on environmental injuries far different than those alleged in the instant case. The common thread running through each of those cases is that they involved a discrete number of "polluters" that were identified as causing a specific injury to a specific area. Yet, Plaintiffs themselves concede that considerations involved in the emission of greenhouse gases and the resulting effects of global warming are "entirely different" than those germane to water or air pollution cases.

Earlier Point of Law posts here.

P.S. Honestly, we're not sure why Judge Armstrong's order made two weeks ago is only coming out now. (It comes to us from an attorney who works with the National Association of Manufacturers.) We wonder whether the film crews (yes, plural) were still on the ground in Kivalina to catch the moment of high drama when they heard the news.

UPDATE (5:40 p.m.): The Law Offices of Matthew F. Pawa, the plaintiffs' Massachusetts attorney, have background documents online here. No comment after the dismissal.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.