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Climate change litigation - a two-edged sword

By Anthony Cox and David Stockwell - posted Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Anthropogenic Global Warming [AGW] litigation has so far largely been by Green groups against industry such as power generators Macquarie Generation and miners such as Xstrata. Generally this Green litigation has struggled and the irony is whatever success they have had may come as a Pyrrhic victory if it not only opens the floodgates for anti-AGW litigation but also creates grounds for specific litigation against Green groups.

For example, Maurice Blackburn lawyer, Elizabeth O'Shea, advocates litigation to block a new brown coal and natural gas power plant using "syngas". Ms O'Shea's case rests not only on the provable fact that both coal and gas release pollutants, but also accepting that AGW is real and that the coal industry contributes disproportionately to it.

Maurice Blackburn's rival in class actions, Slater & Gordon, is considering a class action against the Wivenhoe dam operators, seeking a remedy for the massive damage bill due to the recent Brisbane floods. Much of the analysis of the Wivenhoe dam's involvement in the catastrophic Queensland flood is based on whether the dam operators, SEQwater, followed the "manual" which deals with water release. The manual prescribes 4 levels of water release from W1 to W4 with W4 being the greatest. W4 would only occur when the dam integrity is threatened.


An AGW defence by SEQwater might be used to justify releases not "by the manual". Wivenhoe dam was constructed as a response to the 1974 floods. It was built as a flood mitigator. There is evidence that at the time of the 2010 flood, despite an impending wet season, Wivenhoe was filled to at a 100% supply level because AGW predictions were that water shortages were going to prevail.

If it had not been full it could have performed its intended role as a flood mitigator and reduced or even eliminated the damage to Brisbane City. Whether the water releases were "by the manual" or not would be moot because no releases would have had to be done. Therefore, to succeed in such a claim against the Wivenhoe dam operators, ultimately the taxpayer, Slater and Gordon may argue that the dam was not being used appropriately for its original intended purpose.

Legally, therefore, SEQwater may argue they were acting on expert advice that AGW causes droughts, in which case a full dam was a reasonable precaution and alteration of its original intended purpose and the water releases were the best that could be done. The plaintiff's response could be 2-fold; firstly they could agree that AGW was real but cite where experts say AGW will cause both droughts AND floods, of extreme types; in which case the dam was being used in a way which only dealt with one part of AGW. Alternatively they could argue AGW is problematic and that changing the role of the dam ignored natural factors and the likelihood that another flood similar to 1974 was likely to reoccur.

These are contentions that should make for lively banter at the next meeting of the Entrepreneurial Litigation Association.

Ms O'Shea also relies on the precautionary principle as described in the Victorian Environmental protection Act 1970, Section 1C. Again, in respect of AGW, this section may be moot because while the Section speaks of "a lack of full scientific certainty" not being a bar to preventing environmental degradation, it is not clear scientific certainty for or against AGW rises to the level that would confer standing. Certainly "full scientific certainty" would apply to elements of coal and gas use such as mercury, nitrous and sulphuric oxides and particulates, water contamination and competition with agricultural land use. But none of these pollutants have anything to do with AGW.

Moreover, there are clear remedies that could be applied to conventional pollutants. The particulate issue can be rectified by covering stockpiles of coal, dampening and more efficient transportation. The toxic trace elements issue could be resolved by the introduction of ultrasuper-critical coal technology. This technology is not only greatly more efficient than all other forms of energy production but because it operates at such high temperatures it eliminates most of the real pollutants such as the oxides and mercury.


Coal companies are making a strategic error here. They should acknowledge and rectify the well-known coal-related pollutants, and argue the lack of merit of AGW theory, instead of hiding behind the chimera of Clean Coal or carbon capture technology [CCS]. The problems of CCS are obviously insurmountable: the energy required to capture the CO2 emissions when the coal is burnt requires about as much energy as the coal produces. Secondly, the final sludge containing the captured CO2 requires a storage space about 30 times the size of the quarry from which the coal was mined. To date CCS has cost the Australian taxpayers and the coal industry about $400 million. The coal industry could have solved the particulate problem and made a start on introducing ultrasuper-critical technology.

The point here is that conventional pollution is justiciable because of its degree of certainty. AGW, because it perhaps lacks sufficient certainty to even satisfy Section 1C, is of dubious legal value.

Unfortunately Ms O'Shea concludes her article in a deluge of the usual emotive symbology which proponents of AGW resort to. The continued use of children as the victims of AGW is particularly regrettable as has been argued here.

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About the Authors

Anthony Cox is a lawyer and secretary of The Climate Sceptics.

David R B Stockwell PhD was a research scientist in environmental information systems at the University of California, San Diego, worked in environmental assessment, and is now an Adjunct Professor at CQU.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Anthony Cox
All articles by David Stockwell

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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