With Hurricane Sandy’s 10-year anniversary as a cue, New Jersey recently joined a growing list of states and localities suing energy companies over climate-related damage. Pushed into action by activists, these politicians prefer to make headlines with dubious legal arguments rather than focus on real solutions that address the serious problem of climate change.
New Jersey claims the companies have misled the public about the effects of climate change and are therefore paying the costs associated with rising temperatures. At the press conference announcing the lawsuit, Attorney General Matthew Platkin noted that “Today we begin to right the wrongs that have been done to our residents.” Among other things, New Jersey is asking companies to “stop their lies.”
These comments may make nice soundbites, but they won’t have any lasting impact on combating climate change. First, the legal claims are questionable. Just last year, for example, the federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a similar lawsuit filed in New York City. Second, the cases divert resources and attention from actual solutions.
This particular lawsuit is particularly ironic given that New Jersey emits more carbon dioxide than most other states. New Jersey is densely populated and has a lot of industry. Consumers and businesses use a lot of energy to commute to work, heat their homes and run their facilities. By now it’s pretty clear that Americans understand the link between fossil fuel consumption and climate change. So, will Platkin file a lawsuit against his own state or the state’s residents over their continued use of energy and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions? Of course not.
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The better course of action, of course, is to look ahead. To make a difference, the United States and the world need more innovation, more clean energy adoption, and more multi-stakeholder collaboration. I have seen firsthand that lasting solutions are best achieved when politicians and career officials take on the difficult task of reaching consensus and work together with their peers in the public and private sectors.
For example, last year Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Backed by members of both parties and signed by President Joe Biden, it should make a significant difference. Specifically, it includes $47.2 billion for state and local governments to drive resilient and strong infrastructure across the country. These investments will upgrade critical infrastructure and mitigate the economic damage caused by extreme weather events such as fires, floods, storms and droughts.
The federal government is already accepting grant applications and distributing money to cities, counties, tribal governments, and states. New Jersey is expected to receive billions of dollars. Let’s focus on using it in the most efficient and effective way.
Especially in the current tight energy market, one should also think that cooperation with energy producers to increase supply and support innovations is the best use of state resources. New Jersey is at the forefront of bringing cleaner energy to market. For example, the state was the first on the East Coast to include green hydrogen as a fuel in its distribution system. At the same time, companies are developing several offshore wind farms to meet the state’s aggressive renewable energy goals.
However, on a recent conference call, the CEO of Orsted, the company developing one of the wind farms, expressed concern about rising costs and the project’s financial returns. Well, that’s a place for government officials to call their attention.
Polls conducted by the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project show that Americans support this sensible view. A 2021 poll found that just 2% of voters believe suing companies is the best way to pay for existing damage from climate change. The results of the recent midterm elections also show that voters are forward-looking; They want government officials who are forward-looking—identifying problems and developing solutions.
Working through state and federal policy solutions, rather than demonizing specific companies, is a much more effective way to actually fight climate change. The bipartisan infrastructure law is clear evidence of what can be achieved when parties work together. Taking a stand and filing lawsuits against the companies that provide the energy that New Jersey citizens rely on every day is ineffective and counterproductive.
Jeffrey Kupfer, a former acting assistant secretary of energy in the George W. Bush administration, is an adjunct professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College and President of ConservAmerica.