Four Legal Battles Affecting Our Climate Future

Fossil fuel expansion and greenwashing are at the core of major court actions.

A collage of a polar bear, a United States seal, a judge's hammer, Exxon gas sign, and protesters in the background

Marissa Garcia/High Country News

This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

In recent years, climate activists, local communities and states have turned to litigation in search of climate justice. The 2023 United States Congress was the decade’s least productive one, and the federal government’s lack of response to the climate crisis has inspired a slew of court cases seeking to hold polluters accountable and spur policy change.

The number of climate court cases in the United States doubled in the last half-decade, and more than 100 were filed last year. This new year is set to be no different: “2024 is really a pivotal moment for climate litigation in the Western US,” said Delta Merner, the lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There’s a series of groundbreaking cases that will be moving through the courts.”

The outcomes of the following cases could have significant implications for decarbonization efforts, corporate accountability, and policy. Here are four climate lawsuits in the West to keep an eye on in 2024.

Genesis B. v. EPA

The details: In California, 18 children are suing the US Environmental Protection Agency, claiming that the agency violated their constitutional rights by failing to mitigate the effects of climate change. Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit law firm behind several youth-led climate cases, filed the lawsuit.

What’s next: In August, Montana’s landmark youth-led climate change case, Held v. Montana, had a major win in court after a judge ruled that state laws requiring state agencies to ignore climate impacts when approving fossil fuel projects violated the Montana Constitution. The case set an important precedent for the burgeoning field of constitutional climate law.

The Held decision also “set a standard and understanding that the state of climate science is incredibly strong, that it’s irrefutable, and that courts can understand the science, and that the science will prevail in meaningful decisions,” Merner said.

While the ruling on Held v. Montana has few immediate ramifications, it strengthens the argument that government policies can violate citizens’ constitutional rights to a safe and healthy environment. Cases in California and other states could further uphold that precedent, although only a handful of states have this constitutional provision.

 “The practical implication is to accelerate the transition away from the extraction of fossil fuels,” as states are obligated to consider climate impacts, said Chris Winter, the executive director of the University of Colorado Law School’s Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment.

In two similar cases in the West, young plaintiffs are also arguing that state or federal policies violated their constitutional rights to a clean and healthy environment. In Navahine v. Hawai’i Department of Transportation, the plaintiffs maintain that Hawai’i’s fossil fuel-based transportation system violates the state constitution. The case will be heard in summer 2024. Similarly, a federal suit filed by Our Children’s Trust in 2015, Juliana v. United States, is also pending after a US district court in Oregon revived the case.  

What’s next: The plaintiffs are waiting for a judge to be assigned to their case and a response from the defendants.

State of California vs Big Oil

The details: In mid-September, California officials announced plans to sue Big Oil, not only for covering up the hazards of climate change, but also for deliberately spreading disinformation and deceiving the public—and doing so for the last 50 years. The defendants include five of the world’s largest oil companies and their subsidiaries: Exxon, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP, as well as the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group. The lawsuit alleges that the companies have known about the impacts of climate change but deliberately ignored them, thereby costing California tens of billions of dollars in damage. California wants the companies to cover the costs of fighting wildfires and cleaning up air pollution.

Why it matters: Dozens of states and local governments have filed similar lawsuits against oil and gas companies, supported by a recent US Supreme Court decision that declined to hear the oil companies’ petition to have the cases thrown out. California is the first major oil-producing state to file a disinformation lawsuit against Big Oil.

The oil industry had long requested to have these cases heard in federal courts, which they saw as likely to prove more favorable to their position. This year’s Supreme Court decision was a loss for Big Oil, because it makes it easier for such cases to be heard at the state and local level. Now, these lawsuits are starting to slowly progress forward. Climate impacts “are localized and it makes sense that they should be staying in the local courts,” Merner argued.

Legal experts compare the growing movement to the fight against Big Tobacco, in which the plaintiffs also contended that the companies involved had actively deceived the public. Those lawsuits ended in a massive $246 billion settlement, though many experts believe that the impact of the oil industry disinformation cases will be more regional in nature.

Still, these cases “could have a big impact in terms of requiring fossil fuel companies to contribute to (climate) adaptation efforts at the state and local level,” said Romany Webb, the deputy director for Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

What’s next: California filed a complaint in September. Oil companies are expected to file a motion to dismiss, and a judge will decide whether the case moves toward discovery and trial. A similar case in Hawai’i is in the process of discovery, the phase during which plaintiffs can gather more evidence to plead their case.

Berrin v. Delta Airlines

The details: This class action lawsuit claims that Delta Airlines misrepresented itself as the first “carbon-neutral” airline and should therefore pay damages.

Why it matters: Berrin v. Delta Airlines joins a flurry of suits attempting to hold companies accountable for greenwashing. As more and more companies promise to cut emissions, consumers point out that their pledges often ring hollow. At the center of this and other greenwashing cases are carbon offsets. Corporations, including airlines, have heavily relied on carbon offsets to reach carbon neutrality, but these lawsuits allege that the offsets may not actually curb emissions, and that companies are deceiving consumers when they advertise themselves as carbon neutral.

Defendants in other states filed similar cases against other corporations, such as Nike and Etsy. Overall, these cases “could have significant impacts for corporate climate action,” Webb said, though exactly what that will look like is unclear. “It’s still relatively early days,” she cautioned.

What’s next: Delta Airlines has filed a motion to dismiss. Next, a judge will rule whether to dismiss the case or start pretrial proceedings.

Legal Challenges to the Willow Project

The details: Multiple conservation groups and a grassroots tribal organization, Sovereign Iñupiat for a Living Arctic, sued the federal government after President Joe Biden approved the Willow Project, a massive oil drilling project in the Alaska Arctic, in 2023. In November, an Alaska state court ruled that the Bureau of Land Management could proceed with the project, and the environmental groups vowed to take the case to federal court.

Why it matters: The climate implications of moving ahead with the Willow Project are potentially enormous, Webb said. The project, which is one of the largest oil projects in decades, has the potential to disrupt thousands of acres of pristine habitat, and the lawsuit could answer important legal questions about just how states should consider climate impacts on endangered species during environmental reviews. The lawsuits argue that the federal government failed to consider the project’s impacts on endangered and threatened species as well as the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from oil consumption.

“How those questions are answered by the court will have important implications for other fossil fuel projects, and even non-fossil fuel projects that have climate applications,” Webb said.

What’s next: The plaintiffs are planning to appeal the decision to a federal court.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

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