A recently published study from George Washington University looks at how the nation's courts address the issue of public health in lawsuits related to climate change and coal-fired power plants. Because the courts play a pivotal role in the creation and crafting of public policy, the researchers conclude that greater consideration of health impacts could have a positive effect on such policy in the future. Unfortunately, health concerns are not raised in most climate-related cases.
As government has failed to take meaningful action on slowing and reversing human-caused climate change, those who have suffered from its effects have increasingly been turning to the judicial system. A partner with a prominent Australian litigation firm has been seeing an increase in clients making inquiries about filing such lawsuits, and predicts that “climate litigation could become like tobacco actions.”
While these plaintiffs have suffered property damage and loss of their incomes and livelihoods because of the changing climate, many have also developed chronic health issues – particularly those living in the vicinity of toxic industries, such as DuPont's Teflon factories and coal-fired power plants.
Researchers created a database of climate-related lawsuits involving local, state and federal courts, filed from 1990 through 2016. These cases were categorized by the specific areas of the law, the science being used, specific type of climate change being addressed, and outcome. After that, they interviewed plaintiffs, defendants, expert witnesses, attorneys and those who filed amicus briefs in the cases. These interviews were transcribed and analyzed. They found that raising the question of health effects gave plaintiffs a stronger case and better standing. However, human health was not brought up in most climate cases.
Lawsuits involving health claims were primarily those involving renewable energy and energy efficiency, in which plaintiffs sought to force defendants to change their behavior (such as limiting emissions) or taking action to reduce climate impact (e.g., switching to or expanding renewable sources). Of the 873 cases studied from the time period in question, only 139 involved health claims. However, they found that health related cases were ruled in favor of the plaintiffs approximately as often as they were for those in which health claims were not involved.
The study concluded that “Increasing inclusion of health concerns in emergent areas of litigation could catalyze effective climate policy-making.” Although most of the health-related cases examined in the study involved respiratory diseases brought on as the result of emission from coal-fired power plants, there are other health problems related to climate change that could be raised in litigation going forward – and doing so may force legislatures to act more assertively.