In a move that has brought the fight over climate change into the federal court system, two federal appeals courts recently reversed decisions by district courts to dismiss climate change lawsuits. This allows the cases to go forward, creating a whole new backdrop in the fight to stop climate change.

The New York Times reports that major lawsuits filed by environmental groups, private lawyers and state officials against big greenhouse gas producers are on the rise. One of three major lawsuits is one filed by the people of Kivalina, an Inupiat Eskimo village of 400 located on a barrier island north of the Arctic Circle. Blocks of sea ice that used to shield the island from devastating winter winds have melted, and the Kivalina are blaming global warming.

And so, the Kivalina are suing two dozen fuel and utility companies, including Exxon Mobile and Shell Oil. They want the energy giants to pay the $400 million cost of relocating their village to the mainland. A federal judge in Oakland, Calif., recently rejected the Kivalina suit, but the Kivalina are appealing the decision.

The NY Times reports that similar lawsuits are still in the preliminary stage. But cases such as these are starting to build momentum across the country. Environmental lawyers in Connecticut and New York have joined with attorneys general of eight states and the city of New York to obtain a court order to reduce dangerous gas emissions. Further, Mississippi home owners have filed a suit that claims greenhouse gases contributed to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Experts liken these climate change suits to those that were initiated against the tobacco industry years ago. As the NY Times points out, such suits eventually led to industry settlements and increased government regulation of the tobacco industry. Some feel that these initial lawsuits may be the key to forcing big energy companies to the negotiating table. 

These cases may eventually reach the Supreme Court. But there are concerns that putting big decisions on climate change in the hands of the courts could be detrimental to the environmental movement. However, not much is getting done in the legislative arena on climate change. The historic meeting at Copenhagen last year did little to advance laws restricting greenhouse gases. And while a bill to limit emissions passed in the House last year, it has not advanced in the Senate. 

Consequently, the courtrooms of the world may be the most volatile backdrop for the climate change wars. Michael B. Gerrard is a professor of law at Columbia University. Gerrard points out that the first efforts to sue tobacco companies initially appeared weak. They lost their early cases and appeared weak, but as Gerrard points out, they “eventually won big.”

For further reading: Courts as battlefields in climate fight