Supreme Court Case Could Limit Future Lawsuits Against Fossil Fuel Industry

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Baltimore’s acting city solicitor, Dana P. Moore, said that the city filed its lawsuit in the state courts “because that is the appropriate forum for seeking accountability for localized harms.” She called the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to move the case to federal court “a delay tactic.”

Baltimore’s suit, initially filed in July 2018, argues that the city “is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding,” and that it has spent “significant funds” to plan for and to deal with global warming. The lawsuit also cites the cost of health-related issues associated with climate change, including increased rates of hospitalization in summer.

Michael Martin, the pastor of the Stillmeadow Community Fellowship, a church in Southwest Baltimore, said that the effects of climate change on the city were increasingly clear. “We’re on a trajectory to more flooding, and worse flooding,” he said. The church served as a community hub after ruinous flooding in May 2018 buckled roads and put seven feet of water in the streets. And the floods keep coming.

As for Baltimore’s case, he said, “I think it’s bold, and I think it’s useful.” But he suggested that focusing on fossil fuel companies alone was shortsighted, because other factors like development were major contributors to flooding as well.

As the date of the hearing has neared, a number of science and advocacy organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, have called for the Supreme Court’s newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, to recuse herself from the case because her father, Michael Coney, was for many years a leading lawyer and official for Shell, one of the defendants. As a Seventh Circuit judge, Ms. Coney recused herself from cases involving some Shell entities.

In response to written questions submitted after her nomination hearings, she said that she would “consider all factors that are relevant” to the question of recusal “when there is an appearance of bias.” She has not yet announced a recusal in this case. (Justice Samuel Alito, who owns stock in fossil fuel companies, has recused himself.)

To Lee Wasserman, the director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, which favors climate litigation as a way to hold companies accountable for their role in global warming, the need for Ms. Coney’s recusal is obvious. “Her first major decision on the court is whether to recuse on a case involving her father,” Mr. Wasserman said.

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