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Climate Justice and the Role of State Climate Litigation

Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Akielly Hu

Akielly Hu

Associate Editor

The principles of climate justice state that those who are least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, both globally and in the United States, are the ones most affected by the adverse effects of climate change. In this month’s issue of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter, environmental justice pioneer Barry Hill examines a variety of legal doctrines that states can use to litigate fossil fuel companies to address climate injustices, using Rhode Island v. Chevron Corp. as a model.

GavelIn 2018, the Rhode Island attorney general filed various state-law claims against Chevron, alleging that the company’s oil and gas production and sales lead to adverse impacts from climate change, including climate injustices such as population displacement. Across the country, state and local litigants have battled fossil fuel companies over whether climate liability litigation falls under federal or state jurisdiction. In several cases, including Rhode Island, courts have determined these state-law claims belong in state court.

This opens up numerous possibilities for states to pursue a climate liability case in state court. Hill analyzes Rhode Island’s complaint to demonstrate how three legal doctrinesenvironmental rights amendments (ERAs), public trust, and public nuisanceenable states to craft effective climate change litigation. He then offers four observations states may consider when filing a climate liability claim against fossil fuel companies.

These include enacting a state ERA and updated public trust law that clearly establish the atmosphere as a natural resource protected by the state on behalf of all communities. States may also consider enacting environmental justice legislation, climate change policies, and public nuisance laws that specifically address climate change and climate justice. These legal arguments could allow state governments to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the adverse impacts of climate change, while addressing current and impending climate injustices within the state.

ELI is making this featured ELR article available free for download. To access all that ELR has to offer, including the full content of ELR—The Environmental Law Reporter and its archive, you must have a subscription.

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