US Cities Can Deliver the Climate Solutions Outside the Courtroom

US Cities Can Deliver the Climate Solutions Outside the Courtroom
(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP)
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The years long crusade by cities, counties and states to sue energy companies over alleged climate impacts reached a critical inflection point in January at a Supreme Court hearing. At the hearing, Baltimore’s attorney and the defendants argued over a narrow jurisdictional question as to whether the lawsuits should proceed in federal or state courts.

The case for the lawsuits to proceed in state court is fundamentally flawed given that climate change is a global phenomenon. An attorney representing the defendants echoed this point when he told the justices, “there is something profoundly counterintuitive about the notion that these cases which seek relief for injuries caused by worldwide greenhouse gas emissions should be litigated in state courts under the laws of different states.” 

Beyond this jurisdictional issue, it’s worth examining the merits behind these climate lawsuits and to what extent cities themselves can tackle climate change more effectively outside the courtroom.

When faced with imminent risks or injustices, our natural, gut reaction is to too often point fingers, find a scapegoat and place all our blame on one, distinct villain. While demonizing energy manufacturers, especially firms that utilize fossil fuels, may appear logical to some, these cases illustrate the ultimate futility of a punitive legal approach to addressing climate change. Instead, the answer may be found in policy measures U.S. cities are employing – at the municipal level - to reduce carbon emissions – and mitigate climate impacts. 

recent report from the Rainey Center demonstrated the ways in which more than 150 U.S. cities nationwide are driving clean energy policies for their communities. Spoiler Alert – they are not employing costly lawsuits to do it. The report highlighted that wind, solar and hydropower sources are no longer the sole options for clean energy. Emerging technologies such as advanced nuclear energy and carbon capture also produce zero-emissions – helping these communities reach their “100 percent clean” goals within the next 15 years. Once communities set these targets, they have a variety of strategic, straightforward and cost-effective options on hand to achieve them. 

An often overlooked but potentially key objective is a net-zero carbon goal for public buildings. Since buildings now comprise nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions stemming from energy-related processes, municipalities can significantly reduce emissions by requiring new construction projects to use supplies created through carbon neutral processes. In fact, turning the focus to energy-efficient practices in buildings – such as LED lights on timers, water-conserving plumbing and solar panels – has the potential to have the largest, long-term impact on reducing the carbon footprint of cities thus far.

Other basic, yet effective, strategies to promote energy efficiency include incentives such as tax credits and rebates. In Florida, for example, Tallahassee makes residential energy efficiency loans available, which cover approximately 25 appliances and energy-efficient improvements homeowners can make to their home. 

In California, the City of Berkeley pioneered the idea of Property Assessed Clean Energy Financing (PACE) measures to help owners make their properties more energy efficient and sustainable. To date, more than 30 states have adopted their model, which structures loans that increase the affordability of home efficiency improvements. 

Increasing accessibility and upgrading public transit infrastructure to modern standards are also proven policy tactics. New York City led the way back in 1984 to provide incentives for employers to offer fare reimbursements or stipends to those who commute on public transit. The trend has since been implemented in cities across the country including Washington, DC. 

Whatever approach a municipality may choose, one thing is clear: adopting these common-sense measures has a more sustainable impact on a vastly greater number of people, than one judicially flimsy lawsuit aimed at individual companies. Draining a city’s limited resources, which are even more constrained during a pandemic, the option to pursue long-shot climate change litigation seems a politically motivated, sub-optimal scenario.

Furthermore, lawsuits that appear to demand social justice through the punishment of energy companies effectively do nothing to surmount climate challenges. Verdicts do not reduce carbon emissions, improve environmental quality or determine who is responsible for the resulting damages caused, in part, by energy consumers.   

These views are shared by most people throughout the U.S. The Manufacturers Accountability Project commissioned a national poll of over 1,000 voters in January, which ultimately found that 50% of voters “strongly agree that we need innovative solutions to climate change, not blaming one industry for a problem to which all have contributed.” On the contrary, only 5% of voters strongly disagreed.

In short, make energy manufacturers, especially clean tech fossil, part of the solution.  Fundamentally, our cities need access to all energy resources to prosper. The recent Texas power outages are a case study that an all of the above strategy – whereby power providers source solar, wind, oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear – are needed to make there’s an abundance of energy supply to meet demand.  Our cities should not be limiting our options for energy when we are close to technological breakthroughs that will allow for reliable, affordable, zero-carbon energy from a variety of sources.

From the federal to local levels, governments must work in cooperation with these companies to promote sustainability while providing for the energy needs of communities. The needs of citizens are better served when energy companies, and their experts, have a seat at the table. We all have a stake in the energy future of this country. And energy manufacturers are well-positioned, perhaps better than anyone, to help.


Sarah E. Hunt is the Founder and President of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy.

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