Big Oil is the New Big Tobacco: Climate Change Liability Battles Heat Up

Exxon Knew

For decades now, fossil fuel companies have been misinforming the public about climate change. They’ve paid money for PR campaigns that confuse the climate science. They’ve supported climate change denying political candidates. They fund meteorologists to misinform the public.

The aim of these activities is to cloud the issue of climate change in the public sphere. To generate false debate and to support a political constituency (primarily republicans) that prevents climate action in the form of carbon emissions reductions.

(A recent study breaks down the climate impacts of the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations. The above graphic by Inside Climate News illustrates some of these proportional impacts.)

One term for this activity is predatory delay — aimed at ensuring that harmful fossil fuels control energy markets on and on into the future. Such activity is also intended to prevent a helpful and necessary renewable and clean energy transition.

But intentionally spreading incorrect and misleading information carries with it a degree of liability. Especially when these information and political campaigns lead to such results as getting hammered by worsening floods, storms and droughts that produce very real and widespread damage. Each emitting industry is responsible for a portion of the damage inflicted (see image above). And it is this kind of liability writ large that has landed corporate bad actors like Exxon in court.

So far, nine cities have filed climate change based lawsuits against oil companies. Other cities, like Paris, are considering pursuing legal action. In addition, attorney generals from states like Massachusetts and New York have taken fossil fuel companies to task for both misinforming the public and producing harms by burning fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel companies responded by leveling the ludicrous charge of ‘conspiracy’ against state attorney generals while also using subpoenas to intimidate cities. In an equally nonsensical claim, fossil fuel corps are blaming cities who have, for so long, been captive to fossil fuel energy sources, for their own carbon emissions. Carbon emissions that these cities are trying to reduce — even as they find fossil fuel companies attempting to thwart them at every turn.

Subpoena intimidation by fossil fuel corps was specifically aimed at containing the lawsuits by making an example of whistle-blower cities and states. The message to municipalities presently under threat from climate harms being — ‘if you attack us, we’ll spend a portion of our considerable profits to hurt you.’ And, in some instances, these intimidation tactics have succeeded. The Virgin Islands, for example, bowed to fossil fuel company bullying and withdrew its own climate change damages related subpoena.

On the flip side, the fossil fuel industry has also sustained losses. In a recent California ruling, a federal judge has ordered the first-ever court hearing on the issue of climate science and whether or not fossil fuel companies acted as a public nuisance. This precedent opens up a legal question that could result in a flood of lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry going forward.

It’s worth noting that these are just the opening salvos of a massive legal and political battle to come. We are still in the early stages of climate change litigation and the related wrangling over fossil fuel company liability. And it appears that courageous states, cities, islands and environmentalists are gearing up for a fight for our future that will last for many years to come (you can join in the fight by divesting from fossil fuels).

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