One of the papers’ authors, Peter Frumhoff, chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was also at the La Jolla meeting. And he was at a press conference in advance of Thursday’s hearing. “Cities and communities need to be preparing for further sea level rise and the damage associated with storm surge and flooding, and there are real costs associated with that,” Frumhoff said. “In my view, and I’m not speaking as a scientist but as a citizen, it’s also appropriate to be asking why taxpayers alone should be paying those costs.”
(In a “tutorial” on climate change held by the same circuit court judge who heard the motion to dismiss Thursday, the lead lawyer for Chevron acknowledged the science that says human beings are causing climate change by burning carbon-based fuels. He denied that was the fault of the companies that legally extracted and refined the stuff.)
The really big question about whether a city can sue an oil company for climate change isn’t the climate change part. It’s the “sue” part. A large portion of the oil companies’ motion to dismiss, the subject of the hearing on Thursday, argued that courts weren’t allowed to rule on whether something was a nuisance—the substance of the lawsuits—if that something is already regulated by a federal law.
Which, in this case, is the Clean Air Act. (Ironically, the Trump administration is threatening to upend the law, so it’s hard to know how to think about this logic.) “One of the core cross-cutting issues here is whether or not courts are the right place to make a decision about who’s responsible for the harms from climate change, given the number of people involved in creating the problem,” Burger says. “This is a political question—that tort law is not an appropriate vehicle, that congress and the executive branch are far better situated because it’s an international and global problem and requires a coherent nationwide response.”