In honor of Earth Day (today!), we wanted to bring you some big picture developments from the world of environmental law. At any moment, there are dozens of legal issues touching on environmental regulations that could improve the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the scenery we enjoy. But as the threat of climate change worsens, some high profile domestic and international lawsuits have started to simmer that could redefine the notion of public accountability for the effects of over pollution.
Mother Jones reports that earlier this year, the Federated States of Micronesia, a tiny island nation in the south pacific, filed suit against a power plant in the Czech Republic — 8,000 miles away — arguing that the plant’s pollution is directly responsible for sea level rise that threatens to drown the country. Floods have become so serious, that last year the FSM had to declare a national emergency and spend more than 7 percent of its total budget on clean up efforts. Charles Fletcher, a specialist on Micronesia said that this “is the first situation I’m aware of where sea-level rise has led to threats of food and security.”
Similar legal challenges are starting to heat up here in the United States. In December, the Inupiat community of Kivalina, Alaska sued 19 US energy companies for environmental irresponsibility that caused sea level rise that could force the community to relocate at a cost of $40 million. Their suit is based on the federal common law of public nuisance, which Mother Jones describes as the same principle “you might deploy to sue your neighbor if he opened an obnoxiously loud nightclub next door.”
The problem, explains Kivalina lead attorney Matthew Pawa, is that judges are so far hesitant to enforce environmental regulation, calling such issues political in nature. But Pawa and other environmental lawyers hope to bombard the courts with suits until demanding legal accountability for pollution becomes routine. “It’s a process of learning by doing,” he said. “Just by bringing these cases over and over again, the judiciary [and] the public get used to the idea of liability.”
Enjoy your Earth Day!
Photo credit: morgantj (Creative Commons)