Global Climate Change: Finally, a 'Trust' Worthy Solution?

August 31, 2012, by Meyers Nave

Environmental groups may have developed a way to repurpose a legal theory traditionally implemented to protect water resources, the “public trust doctrine,” to push forward legal measures to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The public trust doctrine, a legal principle with roots in the English common law, embodies the theory that government is required to hold in trust certain natural resources and maintain these resources for its citizens. 

Traditionally, this doctrine was applied to water-related activities, including commerce, navigation, and fishing, but a Texas judge concluded that the public trust doctrine is not exclusively limited to conservation of water—it includes all natural resources of the state of Texas.   

Likewise, a court in New Mexico has permitted a climate change lawsuit based on the public trust doctrine to move forward on its merits.  (Sanders-Reed v. Martinez, N.M. Dist. Ct., No. D-101-CV-2011-1514.) 

Not all courts have been so accepting of this strategy, however.  This creative implementation of the public trust doctrine was recently rejected in a federal court where plaintiffs claimed that the federal government, as trustee, has a duty to protect the atmosphere as a federal public resource.   

Only time will tell how successful this  tool will be to tackle these modern problems.

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