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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climate Change Lawsuit

Air Date: Week of

Despite the U.S.' lack of participation in the Kyoto treaty, individual states and municipalities are taking up the torch against climate change. One effort involves a lawsuit, filed by Oakland, California and Greenpeace, against the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. The plaintiffs want the agencies to assess the environmental impacts of the carbon-emitting projects they support overseas. Host Steve Curwood talks with Vermont law professor Pat Parenteau about the implications of the case.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, and coming up: the good side of bad weather.

But first, the federal government may have taken itself out of the Kyoto climate change treaty, but that's not stopping states, municipalities and citizens groups from addressing the effects of climate change. California, for example, is pushing a statewide standard to reduce greenhouse gases from automobiles. And Connecticut, along with a number of other states, is suing the Bush administration to compel it to recognize the dangers of greenhouse gases. The states have also sued electric power companies to try to force them to cap climate-changing emissions.

While some legal experts say these lawsuits have little chance of succeeding, Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who's spearheading one of the suits, says he wouldn't write off the cases just yet.

BLUMENTHAL: Think tobacco without the money. At the beginning of the tobacco fight, nobody gave us a chance, not a prayer of winning. But legal long shots succeed where they have merit. It may strike the critics as novel or unprecedented, but that should not be regarded as a reason to be unsuccessful.

CURWOOD: Meanwhile, cities including Arcata, Oakland, and Santa Monica, California, along with Boulder, Colorado, are joining the advocacy group, Friends of the Earth and Private Citizens, to take two federal agencies to court for financing as much as eight percent of the world's global warming emissions.

The U.S. Export Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation provide financial aid and insurance to energy projects abroad, including many that emit greenhouse gases. The plaintiffs want the foreign-aid agencies to assess the potential environmental impacts of any future projects.

With us now to talk about the case is Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School.
Hello, sir.

PARENTEAU: Hello, how are you, Steve?

CURWOOD: Good, thanks for taking this time. Now, Professor Parenteau, the plaintiffs in this case were trying to prove in court that there's a link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. What evidence are they presenting and how strong is their argument?

PARENTEAU: They're presenting a variety of evidence. They, they're claiming that the projects that these two agencies fund are responsible of course, for greenhouse gas emissions which are causing a variety of impacts on the various plaintiffs that have been named. They're different types of parties that are named as plaintiffs. Some of them are sugar producers right here in Vermont and New England and those plaintiffs are claiming that the effects of global warming which are just beginning to be felt are going to lower maple production and impact their livelihood. We also have cities in the west in California, particularly, alleging that global warming is already causing a reduction in snow pack in the mountains, which is reducing the amount of water in reservoirs for water supply systems.

CURWOOD: Now what are they asking the agencies to do?

PARENTEAU: In this case, they're not asking for damages or anything like that. They're asking that these federal agencies comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. Of course, our basic environmental charter, what some people call the Magna Carta of environmental policy in the United States, and they're asking that these agencies be required to produce environmental impact statements which disclose the fact that they're supporting and enabling these projects to go forward and causing these emissions.

And then they're also going to argue that the environmental impact statement, of course, has to evaluate all alternatives. Steve, I think that's what this case, when you boil it all down, that's what the fight's about. Should the United States use whatever financial resources it has in foreign assistance to promote renewable energy, energy conservation as opposed to fossil fuel projects.

CURWOOD: In one of their briefs, the government's lawyers assert, "The basic connection between human induced greenhouse gas emissions and observed climate change has not been established." But at the same time, a report put out by the overseas private investment corporation in October 2000, that agency itself makes a strong connection between what it calls, "heat absorbing greenhouse gases and an increase in global temperatures. Professor Parenteau, how can government lawyers reconcile their position about global warming when one of their own clients acknowledges a human connection?

PARENTEAU: Well, in fact, the quote you just mentioned reveals the schizophrenia of this administration. This case is being handled by the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice is basically taking the same position that the White House has been taking on global warming; namely, that there is no established connection between human caused sources of greenhouse gas emission and climate change. And yet, the Environmental Protection Agency has put out a report that says precisely the opposite; that the connection has been established. When the President, several years ago, requested an opinion of the National Academy of Sciences, the Academy came back with an opinion saying, ‘We believe that there is a connection between human-caused gases and climate change.' So, this administration has got, they're speaking out of both sides of their mouth on the question of climate change. On the one hand they try to say there's no connection, but all these other agencies of the government are saying, yes there is.

CURWOOD: Now the government has some of its best attorneys working on this case. Why is it so important for them? What do they see that's at stake here?

PARENTEAU: That's a really good observation. They are feeling I think that any chink in their armor on global warming at this point could open up still more criticisms. The administration I think is pouring a lot of effort into trying to get this case dismissed without any discussion of the merits of the case because they really don't want to see any official pronouncement from a court that this is a problem that demands attention.

CURWOOD: In your view, how significant is this case? Are we looking at something akin to the Scopes Monkey trial for climate change science here, or is it something less than that?

PARENTEAU: Well, that's an interesting way to put it. I think it's significant in this sense. No court has yet issued any ruling that climate change is a problem that government must address in any way, shape or form. So if the plaintiffs in this case get past these arguments that the case ought to be thrown out, and if they can get the court to rule that the plaintiffs have raised enough serious questions about the potential impacts of climate change to require that the court take the next step and actually examine whether these agencies actually have a duty under NEPA to do a full evaluation, I think that could be at least a bell weather decision by the courts. It may not be quite the same precedent as the Scopes trial, but we are certainly at a point in time, for global warming, where a judicial decision that this is a problem that demands attention, I think would be a very significant milestone.

CURWOOD: Pat Parenteau is a professor of law at Vermont Law School. Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

PARENTEAU: My pleasure, Steve.

[MUSIC: Tony Furtado & Dirk Powell "Boneyard" (Rounder Records, 1999)]



Climate change lawsuit website


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