A federal judge’s recent decision in the City of Baltimore’s lawsuit against energy companies is demonstrating how climate litigation can drag on, diverting attention and resources away from making changes that would improve the city’s environment and address climate change concerns.

On June 10, Judge Ellen L. Hollander of the United States District Court of Maryland ruled that the City of Baltimore’s case against 26 energy companies should be returned to the state court. Although this rules in favor of the plaintiff’s motion to remand the case to state court, this isn’t a clear-cut advantage for the plaintiffs. Judge Hollander stayed her order for 30 days, giving the defendants nearly a month to appeal her decision. The defendants had argued that the case belonged in federal court because the claims made in the lawsuit were of global impact:

“At bottom, Plaintiff’s theories are premised on the cumulative effects of global emissions. In seeking remand, Plaintiff asserts that its requested remedies— ‘damages and costs of abatement’— redress only alleged injuries ‘within its geographic boundaries,’ … But plaintiff seeks to hold Defendants liable for their global conduct, alleging harms resulting from decades of accumulation of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, the vast majority of which occurs outside of Baltimore and has no relation to Defendants.”

The defendants maintain that the claims made in the case are “completely preempted by the Clean Air Act and other federal statutes, which provide an exclusive federal remedy for stricter regulation of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions.”

The 26 oil and gas companies targeted by the lawsuit are all but certain to appeal, which will prolong Baltimore’s case further, demonstrating how climate litigation does not provide an efficient or effective means to address climate change’s damages and causes.

The case, which the City of Baltimore originally filed in July 2018, sought to hold 26 fossil fuel companies liable for injuries the city had sustained from climate change, including severe storms, which had allegedly increased the average sea level, in addition to heatwaves that were associated with public health impacts. Sher Edling, a prominent law firm in climate litigation, is representing the City of Baltimore.

Former Mayor Catherine Pugh decided to move ahead with the case, despite decisions against similar lawsuits in California and New York only days before Baltimore’s filing. In California, District Judge William Alsup determined in May 2018 that cases brought by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against energy companies belonged in the federal judiciary, and strongly questioned key parts of the case, including the allegation that energy companies had created a “public nuisance” against an entire community. Rebuking the plaintiffs, he stated, “If we didn’t have fossil fuels, would have lost [World War II] and every other war. Planes wouldn’t fly. Trains wouldn’t run. And we’d be back in the Stone Age.”

Likewise, Judge John Keenan dismissed a case in New York City with the decision that “the serious problems caused [by climate change] are not for the judiciary to ameliorate. Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government.” In short, Keenan’s dismissal provided a legal argument that addressing climate change is inappropriate in any court venue, with the legislative and executive branches better suited to solve a large and global issue.

Despite Pugh’s assurance that her climate lawsuit was filed out of concern for the environment, the former mayor, like her predecessor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, had done little to make climate change a priority. Pugh reduced clean transportation options by removing some city bike lanes and canceling a plan that would have made Baltimore friendlier to cyclists. Meanwhile, Rawlings-Blake destroyed trees and green space in a failed attempt to create a Baltimore Grand Prix.

Given Pugh’s lackluster support for climate change solutions, it seems more likely that she drove Baltimore’s litigation in an attempt to gain a financial settlement. This focus was apparent in the City Solicitor’s initial statement regarding the lawsuit’s filing: “Baltimore has suffered two thousand-year storms in the last couple of years. This is not right, this is not something we should go uncompensated for.”

In another twist for Baltimore’s lawsuit, Pugh resigned in May 2019 after an investigation into the hundreds of thousands of dollars she had made selling her self-published children’s books to the University of Maryland Medical System while serving on its board of directors. She faces corruption charges as one of the nine board members to have profited from contracts with the University of Maryland Medical System. The resignation of Pugh, once a champion for litigation against energy companies, introduces more chaos into a judicial process which provides no direct solutions for climate change and has dragged on for nearly a year, with no end in sight.