Three California counties sued 37 of the world’s largest oil and coal companies Monday for damages related to global warming-induced sea level rise.
Marin County, San Mateo County and Imperial Beach filed separate, but virtually identical, lawsuits claiming that oil companies bear responsibility for the sea level rise harming in coastal counties. County lawyers claim flooding is more frequent and beaches are eroding more rapidly.
The counties want reimbursement for current and future financial losses from sea level rise, in addition to punitive damages. The plaintiffs don’t set a specific number for damages, but estimate they’ll need at least $54 billion dollars over the coming decades.
“This is a long-anticipated move in climate litigation,” Michael Burger, executive director of environmental law at Columbia University, told The San Francisco Chronicle. “You’ll find pieces of it in other cases, but bringing it together like this is different than what’s been done before. You can expect there will be a great deal of interest in how this litigation proceeds.”
The lawsuits claim energy companies knew their drilling activities were damaging Earth by causing global warming, but attempted to discredit scientific findings instead.
Government lawyers filed suit under a similar doctrine that forced a $206 billion settlement from the tobacco industry regarding the health costs of cigarettes in the 1990s. The three lawsuits also argue that the energy companies behaved like the tobacco industry by conspiring to mislead the public about side effects of their product.
The San Francisco Chronicle called the lawsuits a “first-of-its-kind challenge that some liken to the high-stakes litigation of the tobacco industry in the 1990s.”
However, the case has huge legal hurdles, and a similar lawsuit by an Alaskan town in 2008 was thrown out of court.
In order to prove their case, the counties will have to find a specific connection between harm from global warming and the actions of each energy company. Additionally, they’ll have to show that the issue cannot be handled by government regulations.
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