Dismissed: Native Village of Kivalina and City of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corporation


The Native Village of Kivalina is part of northwest Alaska, comprising 1.9 miles of land that is home to approximately 400 residents. Melting sea ice and rising sea level have destroyed parts of the village, and the plaintiffs’ claim (backed by the US Army Corps of Engineers) that “if the entire village is not relocated soon, the village will be destroyed.” This is the first village in the United States that is seeking relocation.

The case at issue considers whether twenty-four oil, energy, and utility companies are liable to the Native Village of Kivalina, Alaska, for $400 million in damages for public nuisance based on their alleged contribution to the excessive emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Federal District Court for the Northern District of California (Oakland division) held no. The Court issued a ruling dismissing the lawsuit on two grounds: 1) that it raises a nonjusticiable political question and 2) that the plaintiffs lack Article III standing under the United States Constitution to bring a claim into court.

The court reasoned that the Kivalina claim, in contrast to the cases the plaintiffs’ relied on involving a discrete number of polluters, is “based on the emission of greenhouse gases from innumerable sources located throughout the world and affecting the entire planet and its atmosphere.” The court also concluded that global warming claims do not fit well under the public nuisance rubric because of the long chain of disconnected events from emission to alleged harm in the global warming context. The public nuisance claim alleges that the defendants’ emissions interfered with the plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their land in Kivalina.

The Court thus concluded that without “judicially discoverable and manageable standards” to apply to resolve this case, that “the allocation of fault–and cost–of global warming is a matter appropriately left for determination by the executive or legislative branch in the first instance.” On a separate basis, the Court found that the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing due to the “attenuated sequence of events” alleged in the plaintiffs complaint, even though the US Army Corps of Engineers concluded that climate change was responsible for concrete destruction to the village and therefore, that climate change contributed significantly to the destruction requiring that the village be relocated somewhere else.

The decision is likely to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit. The plaintiffs also filed a conspiracy claim, wherein they argued that the defendants conspired to promote false scientific debate on global warming. The conspiracy claim, which falls under the jurisdiction of state law, was dismissed without prejudice to refiling in state court.

In the end, if the Kivalina case is the model case exhibiting how some US Courts treat its own citizens affected by climate change, how is the US expected to take any other approach to remedying the impacts suffered by climate victims around the world? If US Congress, and US Courts, don’t provide a venue for redressing the harms to human communities linked to climate-related impacts, what venues are available to bring a claim? [Sidenote: The 2nd and 5th Circuits have overturned prior rulings to dismiss state nuisance global warming claims. So it will be interesting to see whether, if Kivalina goes to the Ninth Circuit, the Circuits will split. If so, conflicting precedent could send the case to the US Supreme Court.]

Read the Court’s order here.