Public Health’s Important Role in Climate Change Litigation

As the political fray over climate change heats up, public health science has an increasingly important role to play as disputes end up in court.

Although public health was a primary argument in the 2007 landmark Massachusetts vs. EPA case that led to the regulation of greenhouse gases, it has so far been underutilized by pro-environment plaintiffs, said Sabrina McCormick in a talk for the Climate Change and Health Initiative (CCHI) on March 3 at the Yale School of Public Health.

In an ongoing study of climate change litigation, McCormick and colleagues catalogued 581 cases filed since 1990. The majority targeted coal-fired power plants, followed by other air-quality and biodiversity issues. Biodiversity suits, such as threats to endangered species, have the highest rate of success, possibly because it is easier to frame the science with a compelling story about animals and extinction, said McCormick.

Public health scientists have the opportunity to create similarly compelling narratives with evidence about the effects of energy generation and emissions on human health.

Science is negotiated in the courts.

Sabrina McCormick

As a third arm of government, the judiciary plays an important role in climate change and public health, said McCormick, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Science is negotiated in the courts,” she said. In social movements, including climate change, both sides must play out their debate through the courts. It is up to the judiciary to ultimately decide who is responsible and whether new regulations conform with the law and the constitution.

Most of the 581 climate changes cases reviewed by McCormick’s team have been dismissed; however the mere threat of a suit can motivate an industry or a person to change their behavior, she said.

The number of climate change cases has steadily increased and this trend is expected to continue under the current administration. In addition to environmentalists filing suits in favor of climate change mitigation, industry and opponents of the environmental movement have been increasingly filing suits to promote their interests. However, in the next four years, the expectation is that most suits will be coming from environmentalists to block administration rollbacks of climate change regulations. Furthermore, “We will see a lot more action on local and state levels in the next four years,” said McCormick.

“Sabrina McCormick’s work provides an impetus for public health scientists who work on climate change and health to contribute their expertise to litigative efforts aimed at protecting public health in the coming decades,” said Professor Robert Dubrow, director of CCHI at the School of Public Health.

McCormick is a sociologist and filmmaker who investigates how to motivate climate change mitigation and adaptation. She is the principal investigator of a study on climate change litigation funded by the National Science Foundation. McCormick was also the producer for Years of Living Dangerously, a ShowTime series about climate change that earned an Emmy Award for Best Documentary in 2014.

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This article was submitted by Denise Meyer on March 8, 2017.

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Robert Dubrow

Professor of Epidemiology (Environmental Health Sciences)