Scientists, meet the lawyers

A funny thing happened on the way to the future.

Its name is global warming, and it’s a phenomenon that seems finally—thanks to overwhelming scientific evidence—to be gaining acceptance for what it is: a clear and present danger to forthcoming generations. Now, a new study, conducted by many of the country’s top scientists and engineers (including people in our own backyard at UC Davis), confirms the warming in a way that hits close to home. The study looks at how global warming will adversely affect us Californians.

Basically, the scientists’ two-year climate forecasting predicts that it’s going to get far more hot and dry around here—e.g., we’ll have more than double the 90-degree-plus days in Sacramento by century’s end.

But that’s just the beginning.

The warmer temperatures will translate into less snow (more rain) and therefore less snowpack. So, there will be less stored water when California needs it most—in the spring and summer. Among other things, the disruption of the water system will cause major financial consequences, including the ruination of many of the state’s most important crops.

The only way to get a healthier outcome is to take dramatic steps to curb global warming. And that’s where the lawyers come in.

About a month ago, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer joined with New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and others to attack global warming at the source. In a dramatic move in late July, the lawyers (representing eight states and New York City) filed a lawsuit demanding that the nation’s five largest electricity suppliers rein in their power-plant emissions of gases linked to global warming. The electricity industry is the largest contributor in the United States to global climate change and is to blame for 10 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions. Calling them the “biggest global-warming culprits in the nation,” Lockyer, Spitzer and Co. sued the industry’s top guns: Cinergy Corp., Southern Co., Xcel Energy, American Electric Power Co. and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The lawyers invoked the federal and state common laws of “public nuisance” (lawsuits that typically concern small matters, like an abandoned neighborhood dump) in an admittedly original attempt to get the companies to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The attorneys general are not demanding financial penalties for the climate damage done so far, but they do require that emissions be significantly restricted in the future. Or else.

Is there any hope that global warming can be reversed, that the recent forecast can be avoided? There is.

The scientists are doing their part. The politicians of California are starting to do their part, having passed a landmark law last year to curb greenhouse emissions in cars by 2009. Now, some of the country’s top lawyers have joined the battle, too.

Step by step. It’s the only way to make a local, and global, change.