San Francisco engineers recently hatched a spooky scenario: What if the bay crosses a six-foot seawall protecting Embarcadero’s waterfront? If an unusually high storm surge penetrates the structure, water could overwhelm metro tunnels, damage utilities and affect hundreds of thousands of people. Today, the risk is low, but climate change will push flooding inland. If sea level rises seven feet, which could happen by 2100, according to the California Office of Legislative Analysts, downtown San Francisco could be inundated every day.
To protect the city, the authorities want to fortify the dike at a cost of 5 billion dollars, and this for only one of the exposed areas of the city. These are costs that “taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear on their own,” says city lawyer Dennis Herrera. Because climate change is mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, the world’s biggest oil companies should be paying their share, he says. “They have long known about the dangers associated with their products. And he has documents to prove it.
In 2017, Herrera sued Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron and Conoco-Phillips on behalf of San Francisco. The claims are explosive: For decades, fossil fuel companies knew their products caused global warming, but they deliberately misled consumers about it while continuing to promote and profit from these products. The financial consequences of this strategy are therefore their responsibility.
Since then, more than 20 cities, states and other jurisdictions across the country have filed similar lawsuits against the industry. Each case has a regional touch. Boulder County, Colo., Seeks redress for an outbreak of bark beetles and uncontrollable wildfires, while Minnesota, which has a $ 4.6 billion corn industry threatened by heat and drought, wants that companies educate the public about the dangers of fossil fuels. They all aim to extract costly legal judgments.
“The climate catastrophe is costing us all death, economic damage and material loss,” says Mary Wood, an expert in climate liability law at the University of Oregon. “The fossil fuel industry has yet to pay a dime of responsibility for the climate damage it has caused to people around the world. ”
The San Francisco case mimics public nuisance complaints filed against tobacco companies in the 1990s for knowingly selling carcinogens. Legal deposit refers to dozens of internal industry documents produced since the 1950s that predict environmental changes, including sea level rise, due to the burning of fossil fuels.
A 1981 Exxon memo warned that the carbon dioxide emitted as a result of the company’s business model could “produce effects that will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of Earth’s population).” Other documents detail disinformation campaigns designed to create distrust of climate science. “Victory will be won when … average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) the uncertainties of climate science,” said a 1998 memo from a front group created by Exxon and other defendants. Thanks to their deception, according to the lawsuit, the companies “impose on the public the costs of reducing and adapting to the public nuisances of global warming”.
The defendants are fighting to have the San Francisco case dismissed without responding to its central demands. Since 2017, they have tried to take the case to federal court, arguing that California judges should not make decisions that affect the whole country. In June, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear this argument, effectively sending the case back to the state.
If this case and others continue, fossil fuel companies could one day face cross-examination in court over their attacks on climate science. And if they triumph, the decisions could be a major source of finance for climate adaptation. But victory wouldn’t solve the biggest existential challenges facing American cities, Wood says. “If San Francisco makes money for a dike, great, but what about the thousands of other municipalities that need repairs now because of the rising waters?” “
A decision against Big Oil could have political and financial consequences greater than dikes. The misconception that everyone is equally responsible for climate change has protected fossil fuel producers, delaying regulation of the industry. “These lawsuits are extremely important because they name the industrial culprits who are behind this absolute global catastrophe,” said Wood. A named culprit, certified by our legal system, could finally convince hesitant politicians to take on the industry whose continued domination risks everything.