Environmental lawyers say the suit will be closely watched as lawsuits against utilities and the government tied to global warming increase. Last July, for example, eight US states and New York City sued five US power companies, accusing them of stoking climate change.
"Any court that rules that global warming is a problem that needs to be addressed, just that headline, would be huge for the people trying to do something about global warming," said Pat Parenteau, a professor at Vermont Law School's Environmental Law Center.
The lawsuit, slated to be argued in US District Court in San Francisco in April, seeks to require two US development agencies to conduct environmental assessments on coal, natural gas and petroleum projects they financed in developing nations, including China and Mexico.
Under the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, US government agencies are required to conduct such assessments on taxpayer-funded projects in the United States.
In recent briefs in the two-year old case, the plaintiffs said the projects financed by the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the US Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC), contribute 8 percent of the world's emissions of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
NO HUMAN CONNECTION TO WARMING?
The plaintiffs, which include lobbyists Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, said global warming from the emissions boost sea levels by melting glaciers, which threatens coastal cities and island vacation properties. One plaintiff, the city of Arcata, California, said warming could harm salmon migration, and rising seas would cause flooding that would damage the city's wastewater treatment system.
US Department of Justice lawyers for OPIC and Export-Import refused to comment on the suit.
But in a recent motion to dismiss the case, they said the connection between the defendants and the alleged injuries is undermined by the "minimal" amount of emissions from the projects and argued that "the basic connection between human-induced greenhouse emissions and observed climate change has not been established."
Given that most mainstream scientists believe that greenhouse gases from industry and autos cause global warming, the plaintiffs say their suit will be bolstered by inconsistencies within the Bush administration on global warming.
A report to Congress last summer signed by Bush's science adviser and his secretaries of energy and commerce, said warmer US temperatures since 1950 were probably caused in part by human activity.
Bush, who withdrew from the international global warming Kyoto Protocol soon into his first term, denied that the administration had changed its policy that more science was needed.
Jeremy Symons, climate change specialist at the National Wildlife Federation, says the administration's policy is unclear. "The administration has been in a bind for the past several years because their scientists have been very clear that global warming pollution is causing changes in climate, and yet they're not doing anything substantive on the policy front."
Vermont Law's Parenteau said the suit against the development agencies might be won because it does not seek monetary damages, but rather asks the agencies to consider alternative energy projects in the environmental assessments.
Lawsuits seeking damages against utilities or governments will be harder to win. "Eventually you will see cases being won establishing damage from identifiable sources of carbon dioxide and other emissions. I think that day will come, but it's a ways off yet," he said.