In Global Warming Case, Supreme Court Reaches Correct Result But Leaves Room for Mischievous Litigation

In the important global warming case decided today, American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court unanimously reached the correct result but one that still leaves room for plenty of mischievous litigation.  While it’s clearly true that, as the Court said, the Clean Air Act and the EPA exist to deal with the claims the plaintiffs made here—that the defendants’ carbon dioxide emissions are pollutants that cause global warming—the Court left open the possibility of claims on state common-law grounds such as nuisance.  And it unfortunately said nothing about whether any such disputes, whether challenging EPA action or suing under state law, are properly “cases and controversies” ripe for judicial resolution.

The judiciary was not meant to be the sole method for resolving grievances with the government, even if everything looks like a nail to lawyers who only have a hammer.  This case is the perfect example of a “political question” best left to the political branches: The science and politics of global warming is so complex and nuanced that there simply isn’t a judicial role to be had.

As Cato’s amicus brief argued, the chain of causation between the defendants’ carbon emissions and the alleged harm caused by global warming is so attenuated that it resembles the famed “butterfly effect.” Just as butterflies should not be sued for causing tsunamis, a handful of utility companies in the Northeastern United States should not be sued for the complex (and disputed) harms of global warming. Even if plaintiffs (here or in a future case) can demonstrate causation, it is unconstitutional for courts to make nuanced policy decisions that should be left to the legislature.  Just as it’s improper for a legislature to pass a statute punishing a particular person (bill of attainder), it’s beyond courts’ constitutional authority to determine wide-ranging policies in which numerous considerations must be weighed in anything but an adversarial litigation process.

If a court were to adjudicate claims like those at issue in American Electric Power and issue an order dictating emissions standards, two things will happen: 1) the elected branches will be encouraged to abdicate to the courts their responsibilities for addressing complex and controversial policy issues, and 2) an already difficult situation would become nearly intractable as regulatory agencies and legislative actors butt heads with court orders issued across the country in quickly multiplying global warming cases. These inevitable outcomes are precisely why the standing and political question doctrines exist.

Dissatisfaction with the decisions and pace of government does not give someone the right to sue over anything. Or, as Chief Justice Marshall once said, “If the judicial power extended to every question under the laws of the United States … [t]he division of power [among the branches of government] could exist no longer, and the other departments would be swallowed up by the judiciary.”