Ninth Circuit Dismisses Major Climate Change Lawsuit Against the Federal Government

Court rejects request for extraordinary relief in opinion that could prove useful in other climate change litigation.

The private sector is increasingly the target of climate change litigation. These lawsuits seek to hold private companies liable for climate change under state public and private nuisance law. Although the most recent wave of litigation generally focuses on whether these cases should be in state or federal court, the Ninth Circuit's recent decision in Juliana v. United States illustrates a potential obstacle to pursuing these types of cases in federal court: As a matter of Article III standing, federal courts lack any authority to redress injuries related to climate change.

Juliana was a high-profile case involving 21 young people who sued the federal government, alleging a constitutional due process right to a "climate system capable of sustaining human life." They alleged that the federal government violated that right by permitting, authorizing, and subsidizing the fossil fuel industry's activities despite being aware of alleged risks to the climate. For relief, the plaintiffs sought an order requiring the government to develop a plan to "phase out fossil fuel emissions and drawn down excess atmospheric CO2." In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing, "even assuming such a broad constitutional right exists."

In the Ninth Circuit's view, "copious expert evidence" established the harms of climate change. The court held that the plaintiffs had established concrete and particularized injuries—for example, by being forced to leave their homes because of water security or flooding. The court further held the causation requirement was satisfied because the injuries were caused by carbon emissions from fossil fuel production, extraction, and transportation. And the court reasoned that there was at least a genuine factual dispute as to whether the government's policies, from subsidizing fossil fuel production to offering drilling permits, constituted a substantial factor in causing the carbon emissions, which, in turn, caused the plaintiffs' injuries.

But the "more difficult question," according to the court, was "whether the plaintiffs' claimed injuries are redressable by an Article III court." On this point, the court held that the plaintiffs' own experts did not show that enjoining the government's activities—i.e., subsidies, leases, or pro-carbon fuel plans—would "suffice to stop catastrophic climate change or even ameliorate [the plaintiffs'] injuries." Reducing "the global consequences of climate change … calls for no less than a fundamental transformation of this country's energy system, if not that of the industrialized world." As a result, "any effective plan would necessarily require a host of complex policy decisions entrusted, for better or worse, to the wisdom and discretion of the executive and legislative branches." According to the court, courts are ill-suited to supervise such a complex compliance plan.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Ninth Circuit dismissed a major climate change lawsuit seeking extraordinary relief against the federal government that would have caused significant disruption to businesses and the economy.
  2. The court’s causation ruling could be problematic in pending and future climate change cases because the court traced the harms from climate change to carbon emissions.
  3. But Juliana could prove helpful in pending and future climate change litigation against private defendants where defendants have argued that the plaintiffs' claims present profound justiciability questions that courts are ill-suited to address and instead are best addressed by the elected branches of government.
  4. The Ninth Circuit did not decide whether private plaintiffs have a constitutional right to a "climate system capable of sustaining human life."
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