A northern California city has become the ninth U.S. locality to sue fossil fuel companies over global warming, alleging warming-induced sea level rise threatens city infrastructure.
The city of Richmond’s lawsuit alleges 29 fossil fuel companies of knowingly producing fossil fuel products that have “a significant impact on the Earth’s climate and sea levels” and “concealed the dangers” through a disinformation campaign.
Richmond’s mayor wants fossil fuel companies to pay the city for sea and weather damages that are allegedly linked to man-made global warming. Scientists say some extreme weather could become more common in the future, though evidence is limited that’s happening today.
“After being warned by their own experts of the potential damage, the fossil fuel industry could have taken steps to transition to a lower carbon future, but they didn’t,” Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said in a statement.
“Instead they continue to spend billions fighting public policies intended to reduce [greenhouse gases], even in some cases, while their own assets are endangered by rising seas,” Butt, a Democrat, said.
Six other California municipalities have sued fossil fuel companies over global warming largely along those arguments, blaming fossil fuel companies for past and future damages from coastal erosion and storms.
More recently, New York City sued five oil and gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, over global warming. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lawsuit argues Hurricane Sandy, which did $19 billion in damages in 2012, was the product of man-made warming.
De Blasio, a Democrat, also announced the city’s public employee pension fund would divest from fossil fuel assets over the next five years
All of these suits echo reporting from liberal journalists with InsideClimate News and Columbia University, that alleged Exxon tried to cover up global warming science by funding conservative groups opposed to climate regulations.
Cities’ lawsuits take this further by suing a whole group of energy companies they blame for changing the climate. However, even proponents of “climate action” are skeptical these lawsuits will succeed.
“I think these are very tough cases to win,” Michael Burger of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University told Axios Monday.
“The extent of culpability with the degree of knowledge and what they decided to do has not had a chance to be fully aired in court,” Burger said.
Cities will have to prove damages from sea level rise and individual weather events are attributable to fossil fuel use, then trace that back to the sales of individual companies. That’s a tall task.
Of course, an obvious problem these cities face is that companies, like Exxon, aren’t solely responsible for emissions since almost all of it stems from consumers buying their fuels to go about their daily lives. In fact, Richmond uses fossil fuels every day to power its vehicles and buildings. Can they now be sued for actually combusting the fossil fuels?
Cities suing fossil fuel companies over trying to hide the risks of global warming have another problem — many of them didn’t disclose said climate risks to investors when selling municipal bonds.
Exxon pointed out in legal filings that municipal plaintiffs did not disclose global warming risks in bond offerings. “None of the municipalities disclosed to investors such risks in their respective bond offerings,” Exxon argued in a petition filed Jan. 8 in Texas.
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