Three Communities Are Suing Fossil Fuel Companies Over Rising Sea Levels

The decades-long attempt to obscure data about climate change doesn’t work in the companies’ favor.

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Jul 20 2017, 11:00am

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, three California communities filed what they say is the first lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for their contribution to the rising sea levels that are putting coastal towns at risk. The lawsuit cites fossil fuel companies' "coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge" about their contribution to climate change as the basis of the complaint.

The complaint, filed by the City of Imperial Beach in southern California, and Marin and San Mateo Counties in the San Francisco Bay area, alleges that the 37 oil, gas, and coal companies named in the lawsuit "have known for nearly 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products has a significant impact on the Earth's climate and sea levels."

Still, the complaint continues, "the defendants took steps to protect their own assets from these threats through immense internal investment in research, infrastructure improvements, and plans to exploit new opportunities in a warming world."

The complaint alleges that Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and 33 other companies named in the lawsuit are collectively accountable for approximately one-fifth of all industrial greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere over the last 50 years. According to the lawsuit, this number was arrived at using "a peer-reviewed methodology used to analyze the companies' own data."

Michael Burger, the executive director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, says the lawsuit is reminiscent of similar complaints against tobacco companies for covering up research about the harmful effects of smoking.

"The entire framing of the lawsuit is much closer to the tobacco litigation than anything we've seen before," Burger told Climate Central. "It makes use of all of the information that's been coming to light over the last several years about the extent of industry research into climate change, and the vast network of think tanks and lobbyists that were deployed to create smokescreens."

The comparison to past litigation against tobacco companies is apt, especially considering how fossil fuel companies have been reacting to similar lawsuits in the past couple of years. In 2015, after nearly a year of investigation, InsideClimate News revealed that ExxonMobil had funded some of the earliest research into climate change in the 1970s, and by 1981 was aware of the negative impact that carbon dioxide emissions had on climate change.

Read More: Watch this Woke Documentary Shell Made About Climate Change in 1991

Nevertheless, Exxon and other fossil fuel giants banded together as the Global Climate Coalition in the 1980s to lobby Congress in favor of the companies' business interests and against what their own data was telling them about their impact on climate change. Following the revelation by InsideClimate News, last year Exxon took a page from the big tobacco playbook and sued the attorney general of the US Virgin Islands, who issued a subpoena calling for the release of nearly 40 years of climate change documents possessed by Exxon.

Earlier this year, Exxon lost the case and was ordered to turn over all its documents on climate change.

In the meantime, climate activists and concerned citizens haven't stopped fighting back. Last year, a group of American youth won the right to sue the government over global warming. Now, three California communities also hope to set a precedent by holding the oil companies accountable for the damage they've caused by obscuring information about climate change.

Of the three communities listed in the lawsuit, San Mateo stands to be hit the hardest by rising sea levels. According to a 2009 report, a sea level rise of 4.5 feet would put 110,000 people in San Mateo County at risk—more than any other county in California. In Marin county, 12,000 homes and businesses worth a total of $16 billion could be at risk of tides and flooding by the end of the century. Imperial Beach expects rising sea levels to flood its wastewater infrastructure and also damage roads, houses, and two elementary schools.

As cities like Miami have already demonstrated, raising roads and making other infrastructure improvements to meet these threats costs millions of dollars—and all too often, taxpayers have to foot the bill.

"Sea level rise is threatening our future," Serge Dedina, mayor of Imperial Beach, said in a statement. "It is unfair to force citizens, business owners and taxpayers to fend for ourselves when the source of the problem is so clear. It is more critical than ever that we hold those corporate polluters accountable."

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