The Yale Law Journal Online‘s new series, Summary Judgment, which features timely responses by academics and practitioners to recent court decisions, continues with the third installment of its symposium on the Supreme Court’s June decision in American Electric Power Co., Inc. v. Connecticut, 564 U.S. __ , 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011) (AEP).
In Climate Justice and the Elusive Climate Tort, Professor Maxine Burkett considers AEP from the perspective of climate justice, a field that focuses on the “intersection of race and/or indigeneity, poverty, and climate change.” She argues that by rejecting common law nuisance claims in AEP, the Court precludes a valuable mechanism for ensuring climate justice. Her commentary centers on the Ninth Circuit case Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., in which an Inupiat community in Alaska is seeking compensation from world’s largest oil companies for global warming-induced damage to the group’s ancestral homeland. Professor Burkett proposes an interpretation of AEP that potentially would allow the claims in Kivalina to survive. Ultimately, she concludes that in the post-AEP world, lower courts can distinguish “between the injunctive relief sought in AEP and the compensatory relief sought in Kivalina”; while AEP may preclude injunctive relief, the lingering possibility of compensatory damages in climate-change cases suggests that “the disparately impacted may enjoy appropriate recourse.” According to Professor Burkett, courts play a role that regulations cannot usurp: “climate tort claims would be the courts’ distinct contribution to what will hopefully be a diverse and multi-layered commitment to rectifying, at least in part, the losses of the climate vulnerable.”
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