4 Legal Battles This Year That Were All About Climate Change

CREDIT: shutterstock

With every passing year it becomes increasingly clear that climate change is not just an environmental issue. It’s damaging to public health. It’s a drag on the economy. And, more and more, it’s become the foundation for legal battles. As the far-reaching impacts of climate change are more immediately apparent, efforts to increase mitigation and adaptation — and push-back from those that depend on the status quo — are rising correspondingly, and ending up in court.

Here’s a look at some of the year’s biggest climate court cases and the legal battles that await us in 2015:

The Necessity Defense Makes Its First Successful Climate Debut


CREDIT: Peter Bowden

In September, two guys, a lobster boat and a district attorney made climate history by first blocking a coal freighter from reaching port and then successfully arguing that they had no choice but to act because the consequences of climate change are so dire.

Defendants Jay O’Hara, 32, and Ken Ward, 57, accepted all charges for blocking a 40,000-ton shipment of coal from reaching New England’s largest power station last May. They thought they were facing jail time. Instead, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter asked them to pay $2,000 each in restitution.

“Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,” Sutter said at the time of the decision. “In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking.”

Ward and O’Hara hope their action will inspire more like it, and those involved with the case said there are lawyers prepared to argue the necessity defense. “Activists can now point to a case where environmentalists admittedly broke the law and had their charges dropped because their actions were in defense of the planet,” Joseph E. Hamilton, a student at Harvard Law School, told ThinkProgress at the time.

The Insurance Industry Sues Over Climate Inaction


CREDIT: AP/ M. Spencer Green

In May, Farmers Insurance Co. filed nine class-action lawsuits arguing that local governments in the Chicago area are aware that climate change is leading to heavier rainfall but are failing to prepare accordingly. In what could foreshadow a legal reckoning of who is liable for the costs of climate change, the class actions against nearly 200 Chicago-area communities look to place responsibility on municipalities, perhaps spurring them to take a more forward-looking approach in designing and engineering for a future made different by climate change.

A month later, Farmers voluntarily withdrew the litigation, with a spokesman saying that the company believed the “lawsuit brought important issues to the attention of the respective cities and counties” and that “policyholders’ interests will be protected by the local governments going forward.”

At the time of the withdrawal, the Columbia Law School Climate blog speculated that it was unclear whether Farmers ever actually intended to pursue the cases or simply wanted to “cause a stir” and “put local governments on notice that they may face litigation if they do not adapt to climate change.”

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that, if ignored, climate change and the resulting rise in severe weather will probably lead to significant increases in insured and uninsured financial losses.

Fracking Ban Breaks Through Resistance In A Fossil Fuel State


CREDIT: AP/Tony Gutierrez

In November, voters in Denton, Texas chose by a large margin to become the first city in energy-juggernaut Texas to ban fracking within city limits. With about 125,000 residents, this city less than an hour outside of Dallas has become the epicenter of the grassroots effort to pushback against the rapid expansion of fracking.

While a handful of other cities and towns had fracking bans on the ballot — and there are a number of moratoriums in place and regulations in the works relating to the practice — the Denton ban is likely to garner even more attention in 2015 as both the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office have filed lawsuits to prevent the city from enacting the ordinance.

Denton city officials have argued that fracking-related impacts such as intense truck traffic, hazardous liquid spills and emissions, and loud noises are typically public issues that cities regulate. As more areas fight for local control over fracking in their jurisdictions, the oil and gas industry will continue to pour huge sums of money into fighting the efforts — often making the contests extremely lopsided.

The EPA’s Proposed Carbon Regulations Cause A Rise In Legal Fumes


CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

In July, the Environmental Protection Agency released its Clean Power Plan, designed to limit the amount of carbon pollution that existing power plants can emit into the atmosphere. The new regulations are meant to reduce greenhouse gases from existing power plants by 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and by 30 percent by 2030.

The most significant move ever by a president to mitigate the pollution that drives climate change, it would also be the first-ever national move to reduce carbon emissions from an existing power sources. And it will not happen without a prolonged legal battle.

Shortly after the rule was proposed, West Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming asked the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to invalidate it. This after nine states, including many of the same ones, had already joined forces in a lawsuit filed by Murray Energy Corp., the largest independently-owned coal company in the country, arguing that the EPA lacks the authority to create the rule.

As these lawsuits play out over the next year in the build up to the implementation of the rules, members of Congress are also weighing in. Earlier this month, 11 U.S. senators said they think the rule could go even further.