Seven-year-old global warming lawsuit comes to an end, setting a powerful precedent

by Mike Gaworecki

February 10, 2009

Along with various other entities, we filed a federal lawsuit in 2002 to force two U.S. agencies to address the global warming implications of their financing activities abroad. We’re glad to report that the suit was settled on February 6th — more than six years after the suit was originally filed — and that the resolution of the suit establishes important legal precedents related to global warming.

We joined with Friends of the Earth and the city of Boulder, Colorado to file the suit in August 2002, and were later joined by the California cities of Arcata, Santa Monica and Oakland. Our complaint alleged that the Export-Import Bank of the United States (ExIm)and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) illegally provided more than $32 billion in financing and insurance to fossil fuel projects over 10 years without assessing whether the projects contributed to global warming or impacted the U.S. environment, as they were required to do under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The fossil fuel projects financed by the two agencies from 1990 to 2003 accounted for nearly eight percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, or nearly one third of total U.S. emissions.

In August 2005, a federal judge found that we — “the Plaintiffs” as they say in legalese — suffered economic and other damages from climate change and therefore had standing to sue under NEPA, opening up the courthouse doors for the first time to those injured by climate change. Testimony from the case, which successfully asserted that climate change is real and caused by human activities, later informed the Mass. v EPA decision, in which the Supreme Court held that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are pollutants that can be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Under the settlement agreed to on Feb. 6th, the Export-Import Bank will begin taking carbon dioxide emissions into account in evaluating fossil fuel projects and create an organization-wide carbon policy. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation will establish a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with projects it finances by 20 percent over the next ten years. Additionally, both agencies will commit to increasing financing for renewable energy.

The settlement represents an important victory in the continuing campaign to hold both agencies accountable for their contributions to climate change, and sets a valuable precedent for demanding accountability of major financial institutions on the issue of global warming in the future.

If you’re into this sort of thing, you can read several legal documents related to the suit here. Reactions from all of our fellow plaintiffs can be found in this press release.

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