As the growing challenge of climate change continues to escalate, the State of Maryland has taken several measures to better position itself for the future. Efforts such as the Climate Solutions Now Act passed by the Maryland General Assembly and the Solar Incentive Task Force create a roadmap for the State to reduce emissions and minimize the effects of climate change. In contrast to policy efforts towards a solution, several municipalities have also initiated legal action against energy producers, alleging violations of state consumer-protection laws among other claims. These lawsuits are counterproductive to finding pragmatic solutions for reducing carbon emissions; it’s my hope that Maryland’s courts concur with this reality and dismiss the cases brought by Baltimore, Annapolis, and Anne Arundel County.
These legal actions are affecting companies that invest millions in developing innovative approaches to tackle climate impacts, such as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technology, a critical practice to reduce emissions from industrial activities and enhance transportation by improving engine efficiency and fuel consumption. These same companies facing lawsuits provide necessary resources to Marylanders that have no practical alternative. Natural gas, for example, has relatively low carbon emissions, as reported by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The EIA found that the transition from coal to natural gas in the power sector resulted in a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions between 2005 and 2019. Today, natural gas plays a crucial role in the daily lives of Americans, providing a source for heating and cooking. In fact, the EIA also found our state is increasingly dependent on natural gas, noting that Maryland consumes natural gas more than any other fuel source. Suing over activities that offer essential benefits to Maryland and its residents is especially counterproductive and harmful.
In addition, it is impossible to pin the effects of climate change to any specific company, let alone a specific location. Even the plaintiffs of these cases claim that “it is not possible to determine the source of any particular individual molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere,” since greenhouse gases mix and diffuse globally. This means carbon emissions could originate from anywhere – even China, a major contributor of global carbon emissions. Yet, these plaintiffs have not pursued energy companies in China or other major emitting regions outside of the U.S.’s borders. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recognized this point when that court dismissed New York City’s case, saying, “global warming presents a uniquely international problem of national concern” and is “not well-suited to the application of state law.” Why should Baltimore, Annapolis, and Anne Arundel County sue one industry for the emissions of all trades? Addressing climate change is the responsibility of all people, across all nations. Pinning it to one industry and a handful of U.S. companies is arbitrary – not to mention harmful to the state of Maryland and to the U.S. more broadly who depends on these energy companies’ products to power and fuel just about every activity we partake in every day.
Finally, let’s consider the financial aspect of these lawsuits since many lawyers and special interests are profiting from these legal actions. The Center for Climate Integrity (CCI), actively recruits states, counties, and municipalities to join these unproductive lawsuits; this group has received multi-million sums in financial contributions from private foundations since these lawsuits were first filed. Sher Edling, the San Francisco-based plaintiffs’ firms, provides legal representation for Baltimore, Annapolis, and Anne Arundel County to litigate these cases in court. Sher Edling, who also collaborates with CCI on recruiting new plaintiffs, would earn a sizable contingency fee if lawsuits enter into settlements or if the plaintiffs prevail. This arrangement raises questions about the true motives behind these lawsuits. Are they intended to enrich trial lawyers and advance out-of-state environmental NGO interests, or do they genuinely want to help citizens?
These lawsuits need to end. They are counterproductive and fail to safeguard the State. If Maryland truly wants to find a solution to climate change, they should collaborate with these companies that are investing in innovative technology to address climate impacts. These lawsuits are theatrical and wasteful. Efforts and resources should be focused towards pragmatic climate solutions, not ineffective lawsuits.
John Astle is a former state senator and veteran.