When Canadian oil sands developer Suncor Energy brings some of the world’s dirtiest oil to market, much of it comes by way of its Colorado refinery. In Board of County Commissioners of Boulder County v. Suncor Energy, a group of Colorado communities sued Suncor for selling and marketing fossil fuels while deceiving the public about their contributions to global warming. Boulder is one of an increasing number of cases brought since 2017 by a diverse group of state and local governments facing climate adaptation costs. Courts have historically been reluctant to act on climate, in part because they see global warming as an abstract threat: too far in the future to cause injury today, too diffuse to hold any one actor responsible, and too complex for courts to fashion a remedy. And like other recent climate cases, Boulder remains stalled over questions of jurisdiction. Yet these cases have the potential to shape public debate and legal discourse even as they are litigated. As part of a larger legal mobilization for climate accountability, Boulder and its sibling cases offer powerful rejoinders to these familiar justifications for inaction.
Boulder brings the present-day climate crisis to the courtroom in three important ways. First, as the first case involving a group of inland communities suing fossil fuel companies, it widened the legal narrative of climate impacts beyond those linked to sea level rise. Second, it focused attention on companies’ deception by bringing the first statutory consumer protection claim in climate litigation. Finally, Boulder highlighted the inadequacy of current doctrines and demonstrated the need for legal reform—a kind of judicial climate adaptation. In May 2021, the Supreme Court remanded Boulder to the Tenth Circuit to reconsider whether it belongs in state or federal court. But Boulder’s impact will not depend solely on the outcome of the jurisdictional questions at stake in the case. As it awaits further review, Boulder and cases like it are already helping to reframe climate change in the law.