Climate Change Defendant: Placing Fossil Fuel Companies in Court

If climate change were a disaster film, it would probably be accused of being too excessive: forest fires bring whole cities to asheshurricanes flooding citiesdrought drainage of lakes and withering fieldsand raging oceans redraw the actual maps of our shores. And now many cities and states are asking, who is going to pay for all this?

“This is real; we’re at the forefront of climate change right here in Charleston,” said John Tecklenburg, Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The city has been hit by an endless parade of floods due to sea level rise. Some desperate homeowners have resorted to raising their homes several feet.

“In the next 50 years, we will see another two to three feet of sea level rise,” Tecklenburg said. “Water is our greatest asset; it has also become our greatest challenge.”

So the city raises large sections of its existing sea wall, and the Army Corps of Engineers says Charleston should build another eight miles of the wall. The city expects an estimated $ 3 billion in climate change-related costs.

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Charleston, SC, expects to spend an estimated $ 3 billion on strengthening the city’s defenses against rising sea levels.

CBS News


Correspondent Ben Tracy asked, “Can you raise the tax high enough to cover these costs?”

“It’s like any big project; you have to look under every stone,” Tecklenburg replied.

Beneath one of these rocks lie the fossil fuel companies. Study after study has shown that companies’ CO2 emissions from oil, coal and gas are major contributors to climate change.

Charleston is one of more than two dozen cities, counties and states suing these companies (including ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and ConocoPhillips).

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More than two dozen U.S. cities, counties, and states are suing fossil fuel companies for their role in the growing dangers of climate change.

CBS News


Tecklenburg said: “I feel that if you have contributed to the problem, you should contribute to the solution.”

“So in some ways it’s a bit of a money grab?” asked Tracy.

“Well, to the extent that they participated in what created this need; it’s a money grab because there is some responsibility for what happened.”

The suits are modeled after the “Big Tobacco” cases of the 1990s and accuse companies and industry groups of making false and misleading claims about climate change.

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One of a series of newspaper ads from 1991 from the Information Council for the Environment, an energy industry group. Internal documents said the goal of their advertising campaign was to “reposition global warming as theory (not facts).”

Environmental Information Council


William Tong, attorney general for Connecticut, said, “I’m suing ExxonMobil because they lied to us.”

Tong is suing ExxonMobil under state consumer protection laws. He said that an internal company survey conducted by Exxon and Mobil (which used to be separate companies) shows that they were aware of the dangers of climate change since at least the 1980s.

“There’s a study from, I think, 1982, where they produce a chart that shows that when the level of carbon dioxide rises, the temperature in our atmosphere will rise,” Tong said. “And that chart is almost entirely correct.”

And the case also cites an internal draft memo from 1988 from an Exxon spokesman advising the company to “emphasize the uncertainty” in climate science.

“This is a strategy paper from ExxonMobil that basically says, ‘Let’s lie. Let’s say that science is not clear. Let’s downplay climate change, “Tong said.

He points to ads similar to editorial articles by ExxonMobil, as well as their executives’ own words, including the 1996 statement by Lee Raymond (then CEO of Exxon) that “the scientific evidence remains uncertain as to whether human activities affect it. global climate. ”

Tracy asked, “Some of these internal notes from the company acknowledge uncertainty about this. Does that strengthen the company’s argument that this was not solid science?”

“No, it does not,” Tong replied. “Because the fact is that they knew with a reasonable degree of certainty that there could be serious catastrophic effects from the continued use of fossil fuels. The fact that scientists have questions about their data is not remarkable; that’s what the researchers do.”

“So your argument is that even though they did not know everything, did they know enough?”

“It is true.”

ExxonMobil, which is named in all 24 of these lawsuits, says: “The allegations are unfounded and unjustified.”

In all, the cases accuse more than 40 fossil fuel companies of a disinformation campaign.

Some point to a 1992 video, primarily backed by the coal industry promoting advantage to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In it, Dr. Sherwood Idso: “A doubling of the CO2 content of the atmosphere will produce a huge greener of planet Earth.”

And a host on camera declares, “As more and more scientists confirm, our world is deficient in carbon dioxide.”

To watch “The Greening of Planet Earth”, a 1992 video produced by the Western Fuels Association, click on the player below:


The Greening of Planet Earth (1992) by
co2science on Youtube

“CBS Sunday Morning” reached out to several of the companies. Some responded and wrote that they are working to combat climate change. In addition, ExxonMobil and Shell said that these lawsuits do nothing to advance this goal.

Phil Goldberg, a lawyer with the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (a group that helps the fossil fuel industry push back against these lawsuits), told Tracy: “Fighting climate change requires policy-making, not lawsuits.”

Tracy asked, “However, the lawyers in some of these cases would say that what they are doing is trying to hold these companies accountable for fraud. Is that fair?”

“This is not a question of who knew what or when, or who said what and when,” Goldberg replied. “The federal government has had the same information that they say the energy companies had back to the 1960s and 70s and 80s. The question is, what are we going to do about it today?”

Richard Lazarus, who teaches environmental law at Harvard, said: “The scale of the problem is one that really requires a national approach. Cities and counties and states are the ones left with the problem when the federal government does not step up to the plate.”

Lazarus said that while cities and states are proving that fossil fuel companies have deceived the public about climate change, it does not necessarily mean they will win: “They have done a really good job of showing that the oil and gas industry, believe I, involved in fraudulent activity. The challenge will be causation, to prove that their fraudulent behavior is what prevented the United States from passing the laws we needed to reduce these greenhouse gas emissions. “

So far, the industry has submitted a number of proposals that slow down the cases.

Charleston, South Carolina is preparing for a long and uncertain legal battle. Tracy asked Mayor John Tecklenburg, “If you do not succeed in this lawsuit, then what does it mean for what you are trying to do here?”

“We will find a way to fund the improvements we need,” he replied.

“But I bet you’ve heard the phrase, ‘Hope is not a strategy’?”

Tecklenburg laughed: “Hope jumps forever, right?”

But in the meantime, the water continues to rise.


READ AN EXCERPT: “The Rule of Five,” about arguing for climate change before the Supreme Court


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History produced by Dustin Stephens. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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