“From 1957 onward, there is no doubt that Humble Oil, which is now Exxon, was clearly on notice” about rising CO2 in the atmosphere and the prospect that it was likely to cause global warming… — Environmental Law Center’s Director Carroll Muffett in The New York Times
We’ve known for some time that failing to respond to climate change is a callous cruelty of the worst kind imaginable. That continuing to burn fossil fuels and to delay a necessary transition to renewable energy will not only melt ice caps, provoke extreme weather the likes of which none of us have seen, flood coastlines and island nations, and threaten global food production, but it will also ultimately set off a hothouse mass extinction that is likely to be as bad or worse than the Permian.
We’ve known for decades now that the best, most moral, choice for human civilization is to keep those harmful fuels in the ground. To find a better way for conducting our national and global affairs and not to continue along the catastrophic business as usual emissions path. To listen to the increasingly urgent warnings posed by scientists — not the all-too-harmful dissembling of climate change deniers.
(Nature will surely grant no quarter if we do not hold the climate bad actors to account.)
And because continuing to burn fossil fuels commits so many harms on individuals, on nations, on the world, on children who are now growing up or who have yet to be born, and on the vital skein of nature itself, this activity is increasingly being viewed in the context of liability and criminality.
Corporate Support of Climate Change Denial Invites Accusations of Fraud, Consumer Protection, Environmental Law, and Securities Violations
For its actions as a leader in misinforming the public and promoting climate change denial, Exxon Mobil has found itself at the center of a maelstrom of lawsuits and investigations. The oil and gas company opposed regulations to curtail global warming. It funded organizations critical of global climate treaties and actively sought to undermine public opinion about the scientific consensus that global warming is caused by burning fossil fuels. And, in a move reminiscent of the Orwellian nightmare, the company helped to found and lead a misinformation engine called the Global Climate Coalition of businesses opposed to regulating greenhouse gas emissions. All this despite the fact that Exxon’s own scientists had previously confirmed that fossil fuel burning was indeed the cause of the warming.
By 2015, after numerous failures to respond to letters by Congressional Lawmakers and concerned citizens, Exxon was the subject of increasing scrutiny. In October of the same year, the company became the focus of a formal request from more than 40 social justice and environmental organizations to the United States Attorney General that an investigation be opened into its public deception and climate change denial campaigns. Vice President Al Gore, among other national leaders, then called for the revocation of Exxon’s articles of incorporation.
(Exxon’s own scientists told the corporation that human-caused climate change was a threat as early as the late 1950s. Exxon then spent millions of dollars to misinform the public. Image source: The Guardian.)
The outcry built as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened an investigation into Exxon’s activities. At issue was whether or not Exxon committed fraud or violated consumer protection and securities laws. Subsequently, the California Attorney General opened his own investigation into whether Exxon misinformed its shareholders, committed securities fraud, or violated environmental laws. And by mid summer of 2016, seventeen state attorney generals were involved in the growing legal action.
After various Congressional wranglings and court hearings, the case against Exxon is now headed for a New York state trial. It now appears that Exxon is likely to be found guilty of some or all of these charges. A decision that the company is likely to attempt to appeal.
Children Sue National Governments Over Human Rights and Welfare
Also in August of 2015, a group of children in Juliana vs the United States sued the federal government — arguing that its actions have endangered future generations’ rights to the degree that it threatened their survival. The government is argued to have endangered these children and to have failed in its duty to protect their access to crucial natural resources — to include a stable atmosphere and a natural world capable of sustaining the people of the United States.
(In the U.S., a variety of climate impacts ranging from sea level rise devouring coastlines, to worsening droughts, heatwaves, fires, and floods, to increasingly intense storms, to declining ocean health, air and water quality, to harm to the U.S. food and water security all threaten our children’s future well-being and survival. Their lawsuit — compelling the federal government to act decisively on climate change — continues to move forward in federal court. Image source: Common Dreams.)
The lawsuit has named President Donald Trump as a party to be held accountable. But the legal action’s overall aim is to compel the U.S. federal government to act in a decisive manner to respond to climate change in order to protect the survival and well being of future generations. The lawsuit continues to advance in federal court despite numerous calls by the fossil fuel industry and by the Trump Administration to have the case thrown out or delayed (you can read the legal argument of the plaintiffs here). At this point, the case appears likely to receive a hearing this year.
On April 1 of 2017, a similar lawsuit was also filed by 9 year old Ridhima Pandey against the government of India. Ridhima’s lawsuit argues that India, which is also the world’s third largest carbon emitter, has failed to put into action the promises it made by signing the Paris Agreement on climate change. The case also alleges that India has violated its public trust doctrine, its implied promise to provide inter-generational equality, and a number of national environmental laws. Ridhima’s lawsuit comes as India has increasingly succumbed to dangerous heatwaves, droughts, and floods which have harmed food production, provoked mass suicides by farmers, and put the water security of a number of provinces into increasing jeopardy.
UK Government Faces Lawsuit in 21 Days if it Fails to Act on Carbon Budget
In the UK, promises to cut carbon emissions are now legally binding. Britain’s Climate Change Act required the government to find a way to reduce the amount of carbon hitting the atmosphere by 57 per cent through 2032. And considerable progress has been made toward this goal as a shift away from coal precipitated a 33 percent drop from 1992 through 2014. However, the government’s reliance on fracking, its sand-bagging of renewable energy adoption policies, and its failure to more fully incentivize electric vehicles has now put it in a position where the 57 percent goal is falling out of reach.
In response, environmental law firm ClientEarth is giving the UK government 21 days to make good by producing a policy that puts emissions reductions back on track to meet 2032 goals. Failure to do so, says the firm, will result in a lawsuit against the government for not meeting its legal obligations to the public.
(Climate change denial may make you want to laugh or cry. But it’s a deadly serious matter.)
James Thornton, chief executive at ClientEarth, noted:
“We want to work with the government on a strong, effective emissions reduction plan, but all we get is never-ending delays. Government must publish the plan, and must consult with industry and civil society. If it continues to kick this can down the road, we will have no option but to consider legal action.”
Paradigm Shift Running Throughout Civil Society
Legal actions holding powerful corporations accountable for climate harms, holding governments to account for failing to provide for the welfare of future generations, and legally compelling governments to adhere to climate policy obligations represents a pivotal shift in the rules and standards governing western civil societies. It provides an institution that enables citizens and environmental watch-dogs to shape climate policy while holding bad climate actors to account. And this critical social advancement in the presently perilous age when climate impacts are now starting to be realized could not have come soon enough.
Hat tip to Colorado Bob
Hat tip to Erik