January 16, 2019
By: Sal Nuzzo
As stewards of a multi-sector economy that extends far beyond the state’s sunny beaches, Florida’s elected officials have unique opportunities to lead the nation in adopting strategies to create jobs and avoiding moves that needlessly antagonize businesses.
A stark example of what to avoid was recently on display with an environmental advocacy group’s petition for the Fort Lauderdale City Commission to be part of strategy to bring lawsuits against manufacturers in the energy sector over hypothetical impacts of climate change.
Starting in 2017, officials in San Francisco and other California municipalities, New York City, Colorado, Rhode Island and other states have gone to court seeking possibly hundreds of billions of dollars from energy companies whom they wrongly allege are responsible for the rise in sea levels and wildfires associated with climate change.
The suits have been encouraged by trial lawyers working with environmental activists. Because they are working on a contingency basis, it is costing these cities and states nothing. Some elected officials were likely approached precisely because it could boost their progressive environmental credentials. If one of these cases were to succeed, the trial lawyers would rake in tens of millions of dollars.
But judges are not buying what they are selling. In rejecting the suit brought by New York City, U.S. District John Keenan summed it up writing, “Climate change is a fact of life, as is not contested by defendants. But the serious problems caused thereby are not for the judiciary to ameliorate.
Global warming and solutions must be addressed by the two other branches of government.” U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup, appointed by President Clinton, tossed out the suits by San Francisco and Oakland, emphasizing that a planetary phenomenon “deserves a solution on a more vast scale than can be supplied by a district judge or jury in a public nuisance case.”
These rulings are in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-0 ruling in 2011 in the case of American Electric Power v. Connecticut, which pitted eight states, New York City, and other plaintiffs against a number of electric utilities. Writing for court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said federal law does not sanction suing corporations for greenhouse gas emissions and that it was the responsibility of Congress and federal agencies to craft policy in this area, not the courts.
For policies to succeed, public officials must work with business. There are more than 20,000 manufacturing companies in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. They make aerospace products, batteries, food and beverages, communications equipment, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, semiconductors and boats, and support over 370,000 jobs.
Florida’s unemployment rate is low and our economy is growing at a faster pace than the U.S. economy overall in part because our tax and regulatory burden is lower than many other states. A hostile approach toward manufacturers would ill serve our state and hinder efforts to address environmental issues.
Nationally, the five biggest energy manufacturers reduced their emissions by an average of 13 percent between 2010 and 2015. While manufacturers’ overall contribution to GDP growth has been rising, they have reduced emissions linked to climate change by 10 percent over the last 10 years.
We do not have to choose between economic growth and smart climate policies. In a state where tourism and agriculture are the biggest economic sectors, Florida’s business community does not need to be told about the importance of sound environmental policies.
Elected officials in Florida’s communities have an opportunity to reject climate litigation that punishes energy manufacturers for making products essential to daily life. Holding a handful of companies financially liable for changes in global climate patterns is akin to compelling Florida residents to turn off their air conditioners after sunset.
State and local officials would certainly not inflict such pain on Floridians knowing it will not make a dent in tackling climate change. Likewise, Fort Lauderdale should refuse to be part of a counterproductive litigation strategy fueled by profit-driven trial lawyers.
Sal Nuzzo is the vice president of policy at The James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.