A quick update to one of the key climate change cases pending in the federal courts. Readers may recall that the U.S. Supreme Court announced late last year that it will indeed hear the challenge to a court of appeals decision allowing several states to pursue a public nuisance suit against various utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10).

Last week the federal government weighed in and asked the Court to overturn the court of appeals' decision in this public nuisance suit against American Electric Power Co. and other utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions, but on relatively narrow grounds. The brief filed by the Acting Solicitor General argues that the plaintiffs lacked “prudential standing” and that their suit should therefore be dismissed. We have noted here before that a central issue is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court. Should a single judge set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue? Judges in subsequent cases could set standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities. A second issue is whether controlling power plant emissions' alleged effects on the climate is a political question beyond the reach of the courts. Recall that the Southern District of New York dismissed the suit in 2005, holding that the claims represented a political question. Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 406 F. Supp. 2d 265.

The government position is that plaintiffs bring claims under the federal common law of public nuisance against six defendants alleged to emit greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. But if plaintiffs' theory is correct, virtually every person, organization, company, or government across the globe also emits greenhouse gases, and virtually everyone will also sustain climate-change-related injuries. Principles of prudential standing do not permit courts to adjudicate such generalized grievances absent statutory authorization, particularly because EPA, which is better-suited to addressing this global problem, has begun regulating greenhouse gases under the CAA. As a result, plaintiffs’ suits must be dismissed. EPA began regulating greenhouse gas emissions from certain sources in January, although members of Congress are moving to delay or block EPA's authority to do so, which we will post on later this week.

The federal government brief concedes that plaintiffs have Article III standing based on their interest in preventing the loss of sovereign territory for which they are also the landowners. It asks that the Court not decide whether plaintiffs’ suits are barred by the political question doctrine, although noting that this case does indeed raise separation-of powers concerns highlighted by the second and third factors used in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), to describe the political question doctrine: a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.

The AEP brief is available for interested readers.