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Why lawsuits over climate change are on the rise

The U.S. Supreme Court building
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

The number of state and federal lawsuits related to climate change has been on the rise since 2006.

Sabrina McCormick is an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University Miliken Institute School of Public Health. She's the lead author of a studyin the journal Science that finds the role of climate science in court is changing.

McCormick and her team looked at 873 judicial decisions between 1990 and 2016, and found that climate science is being used more often in lawsuits.

“And we’ve seen that rise particularly around 2006,” she explains. “We see it also in some really key cases, for example, the historic case of Massachusetts v. EPA, which was in 2007, which led to the regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.”

McCormick says of the 873 cases the team looked at, more cases were won by anti-regulation plaintiffs than those advocating for more regulations (for example, lawsuits over air pollution).

“But when you look at, for example, renewable energy and energy efficiency, which are more recent cases, you see something very different," McCormick says. "Which is, you see folks that are interested in the advancement, the proliferation of renewable energy winning more than those who are interested in the advancement of fossil fuels. So, the trends around who’s winning and losing really depend on what kind of case it is.”

McCormick says a winning case can have profound effects on everything from local communities to federal policies.

“For example, the state of California has the largest number of climate litigation cases of any state in the country and maybe that’s not surprising, but it is a really large number, significantly more than any other state," she says. "And when cases are won in that state, that state can set precedents for other states that want to adopt the policy that then advanced in the court system of California. So it can have a huge ripple effect across the country, and we see that in many different cases.”

Listen to the interview with Sabrina McCormick above.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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