Too many climate headlines sound alike: “Polar ice cap melting faster than expected,” “Scientific consensus stronger than ever,” “Pacific island soon to be underwater,” etc. But this recent one stood out: "Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions." That's from a Guardian story about new research in the journal Climatic Change, in which Richard Heede calculated the greenhouse gas contributions of major companies since the Industrial Revolution.
The news excited at least one legal scholar. In a blog post for the Center for Progressive Reform, American University law professor David Hunter calls the study “a potential game-changer” because it could make it easier for climate change’s victims to sue its perpetrators. Hunter writes:
Courts need no longer fear that it would be impossible to untangle the private sector’s historical contributions to climate change or unfair to make oil companies, for example, pay for all climate-related damages. A clear formula now exists for allocating at least a significant percentage of the costs of climate change to those companies that benefited most from the public nuisance created by their emissions. Take, for example, the costs of moving the Inuit village of Kivalina, which attempted to sue several of the top polluters for the anticipated costs of relocating their village as a result of climate change. Those costs could now be allocated to the major fossil fuel companies based on their historical contributions to the problem.
From this you might think that if you and your neighbors are harmed by extreme flooding or forest fires, you could band together and sue the companies responsible for climate change. That is unrealistic.