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Trump's courtroom battles over global warming

A newly published paper from the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law looks carefully at the 82 legal battles over climate change that got underway during President Trump's first year. Roughly 75% seek to uphold or advance climate policies.

Adapted from Adler, "U.S. Climate Change Litigation In the Age of Trump: Year One"; Note: Lawsuits studied are from 2017; Chart: Axios Visuals

Why it matters: The courts are an important battleground for climate policy, in part because unwinding or freezing a predecessor's policies often requires careful bureaucratic and legal spadework that provides opponents with avenues for litigation.

State of play: Columbia Law School fellow Dena P. Adler explored 82 cases, most of which were filed last year, while a few were prior cases that "pivoted" in response to Trump's deregulatory push. The study breaks down the cases in numerous ways, including a look at the different policy areas the cases address (see chart above).

One level deeper:

  • Overall, nearly three-fourths are what she calls "pro" cases — that is, plaintiffs are seeking to advance or uphold climate policies and safeguards. The balance are "con" cases that she says are designed to "undermine climate protection or support climate policy deregulation."
  • 28% were about integrating climate considerations into environmental reviews and permitting; 17% were aimed at defending Obama administration policies and decisions; 15% were about promoting "transparency and scientific integrity" under Trump; and 13% are aimed at "advancing or enforcing" additional protections.
  • Non-governmental organizations brought over half the cases analyzed, including the bulk of the "pro" lawsuits.
  • The Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency were the most frequent defendants, together accounting for 35 cases.
  • Of 14 cases directly defending Obama-era policies and decisions, 6 of those focused on delays of policy were able to reach some form of resolution.

What's next: "Though courts have issued a few decisions and litigation has pressured agencies to publish some outstanding rules, the 'stickiness' of these outcomes remains uncertain. Neither of these results preclude an agency from subsequently rolling back the policies at issue through the rulemaking process," she writes.

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