On Thursday, May 24th, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California heard arguments on a motion to dismiss a pioneering lawsuit filed by San Francisco and Oakland against oil and gas producers like ExxonMobil, Shell, and others, seeking to recover the massive costs of adapting to climate change. If the case survives and moves to trial, it would be the first to do so, and would represent a watershed moment for climate liability lawsuits which have been filed by 13 localities across the country.
Not surprisingly, these lawsuits have generated predictable denunciations from fossil fuel allies: First, they argue there’s no comparison between big oil and industries like tobacco that were brought to account through the courts. Then they claim we’re all responsible, so no one, especially not the oil industry in particular, is responsible. And finally, they argue that addressing climate change is a political question that cannot be decided in the courts.
Let’s take a look at the claims.
Internal company documents confirm that big oil, like big tobacco, knew of the "potentially catastrophic” problems that their products would cause, well before the rest of society. But when the world caught up and threats of regulation or litigation loomed, big oil, like big tobacco, made a conscious decision to undermine the research its own scientists pioneered, and cast doubt about climate science where none existed to preserve markets and delay action to solve the problem — consequences be damned.
To deflect attention from these nearly identical strategies, industry supporters remind us that oil has great value to society and tobacco does not, as though this distinction eliminates responsibility for the damage a product causes. Obviously, that is not true. Just ask the asbestos industry.
And contrary to industry’s claims, you and I are not responsible for climate change because we drove our kids to soccer practice and heated our homes in the winter — a ploy akin to the tobacco industry’s attempts to pin smoking-related deaths on smokers. While seductive, this line of reasoning fell apart when internal tobacco company documents revealed that the companies developed their products to be more addictive.
We all use fossil fuels, but that’s because up until very recently there were no alternatives. Literally. One of the main reasons there have been no alternatives is because the oil industry spends billions of dollars obstructing their development and deceiving the public and Congress about the climate-related dangers of continued reliance on its products. The oil industry has done everything it could to make sure we stay addicted to its products. While that might make good business sense, it also caries liabilities, for example, when you know for decades that your product is causing potentially cataclysmic changes in the global climate.
Industry’s defenders assert that climate change is a political problem, and that litigation is not the path to a solution. But for all its tremendous political power, big oil has done nothing to advance serious policy solutions to climate change. The truth is, for social crises of climate’s dimension the courts have had to lead where the political process could not.
The more you look, the more big oil looks like big tobacco, big pharma with opiods, the lead paint and asbestos industries, all of whom made products that were desirable, useful, or even revolutionary in their day, but in the end caused unnecessary tragedy that they were made to pay for.
And that’s all these cases are about: Who pays for the damages? The polluters who knowingly caused the problem, or taxpayers, who the same polluters deliberately misled about the risks.
For many communities like King County, New York or San Francisco the decision to sue is not just the right one, it’s the common-sense option that protects their taxpayers and their community’s future. After all, why should seniors on Social Security pay for climate change resilience with a tax increase? Why should families have to decide between a new school or a stronger police force vs. millions in storm water drainage improvements to protect their homes from climate-driven heavy downpours?
The answer is that they shouldn’t. It’s the polluters who need to pay. After all, the notion that polluters pay is as old as the Greek philosopher Plato, and as American as apple pie.
Richard Wiles is the executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity, and initiative of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.