For most of us, if we have a leaky roof or something in our home that needs repair, we save up so that we can fix it. It would be nice if our gas or electric provider would just hand us money for repairs, but that’s just not reality. In a lawsuit over climate change, the city of Hoboken is trying this trick to get money for its own infrastructure projects. The problem is that Hoboken is sticking the rest of us with the bill. Its lawsuit will make it much more expensive for us to put gas in our cars and turn on our lights.
Regardless of whether Hoboken’s concerns are a result of climate change or poor planning locally, it has become clear that more can be done to prepare for the impacts extreme weather events are having on our shore and low-lying areas. Hurricane Sandy hit my community in Point Pleasant Borough, where I formerly served as council president, just as much as anywhere else. The question is what we are going to do to prepare for it as a community and as local officials.
Hoboken and a few other municipalities across the country are choosing to point fingers at others instead of taking responsibility for allowing overdevelopment to occur and for failing to invest in infrastructure resiliency. Their lawsuits argue that energy companies are to blame for climate change because they sold us gas, electricity and other energy staples we all use daily. They are demanding that the energy companies turn over billions of dollars to fund local projects that they say will protect their municipalities from the perceived impacts of climate change but that they likely have not spent any time developing or studying.
As someone whose professional career has been largely devoted to local governance, I am deeply concerned about the impact these lawsuits will have on our communities, from local jobs to the affordability of gas and electricity for our families and businesses. It also sets a terrible precedent.
First, deciding who should pay for any localized impacts of climate change is not a liability issue for the courts to decide. The U.S. Supreme Court has already spoken on this general issue. In 2011, it unanimously ruled that energy companies could not be held liable for greenhouse gas emissions under federal law. In her ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the EPA and Congress, not the courts, are the appropriate venues to deal with climate policies. This includes the causes and impacts of climate change.
The Supreme Court’s ruling was reinforced in April of this year when federal appellate court dismissed New York City’s climate lawsuit. Hoboken’s lawsuit is a carbon copy of New York City’s case. There is no legal foundation for any of these claims. With such unambiguous and authoritative rulings, it is irresponsible for Hoboken and the climate activists behind this litigation to continue their legal campaign.
Second, as a municipal leader, it was my responsibility to weigh our energy needs and economic interests along with environmental concerns. This litigation, though, will do nothing to address the environmental concerns that leaders in Hoboken are raising. Worse, public records reveal the law firms peddling these lawsuits will siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from any funds dedicated to infrastructure projects. If we need to spend money on local projects to help better mitigate environmental impacts, there is no need to enrich more lawyers along the way.
Third, municipal climate lawsuits directly affect our state and local economic health. The truth is that oil and natural gas provide a significant amount of money to our state economy – more than $21 billion. Moreover, the oil and gas industry supports more than 142,000 jobs here, in such industries as services, retail, manufacturing and construction. Further pursuit of wasteful litigation threatens our financial security.
Finally, climate litigation is unpopular because it will lead to higher energy prices. Findings from a poll conducted by the Manufacturers Accountability Project indicated that only 2% of voters believe that suing companies is the best way to pay for existing climate change damages.
Similarly, nearly half of those polled thought that it was unfair to blame a handful of companies for an issue that is global in nature.
For these and many other reasons, many municipal leaders have voiced their opposition to climate litigation, including in coastal California. This litigation is just not a good idea, and it won’t lead to any solutions.
If elected officials in the Garden State are serious about becoming more resilient in the wake of major weather events such as Hurricane Ida, they must confront this complex problem with the collaborative mindset and innovative spirit that America exemplifies. Instead of wastefully squandering vital taxpayer money on trial attorneys and professional activists, municipal leaders in New Jersey should be working with a broad coalition of business, government, infrastructure designers, and environmental leaders on the type of innovative measures that can provide more resiliency in the face of extreme weather events and mitigate the local impact.
Michael Thulen Jr. is a former president of the Point Pleasant Borough Council.