Print Issue Volume 99 - Issue 6

Sue To Adapt?

Climate change litigation has influenced regulation substantially in the United States. Most notably, the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA serves as the basis for federal Clean Air Act regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles and power plants. However, most U.S. litigation thus far has focused on mitigation, i.e., how to limit emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

This Article is the first to address the significance of an emerging area of U.S. litigation: cases focused on forcing or limiting government action to adapt to climate change. These new lawsuits – on issues such electric grid resiliency, protective sand dunes, coastal sewage system inundation, deterioration of coastal waters, and flood insurance – will help shape local, state, and federal efforts to plan for the impacts of climate change.

Although the United States has just begun to address adaptation in its courts, other common law countries are farther along. In particular, Australia, which faces many early impacts from climate change due to its geography, has more developed adaptation policy and jurisprudence. This Article not only explores the role of the developing U.S. case law, but also considers how the Australian experience might inform U.S. approaches. Drawing from extensive interviews with U.S. and Australian litigants and regulators in addition to doctrinal analysis, the Article argues that the Australian litigation illustrates pathways for U.S. litigation to build on its early cases to: (1) change planning culture, (2) use natural disasters as catalysts for adaptive planning, and (3) navigate more effectively the tensions between public adaptation interests and private property rights.

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