Union of Concerned Scientists

Six Key Facts Ignored in Dismissal of California Climate Suits vs. Fossil Fuel Companies

Photo: Alan Grinsberg/Flickr

This week, U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed lawsuits by San Francisco and Oakland seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their contributions to climate change. Judge Alsup’s ruling dangerously rested on balancing climate harms with fossil energy benefits, deferred to legislative- and executive-branch solutions that major fossil fuel companies have spent millions opposing, seriously underplayed the role of ExxonMobil and others in spreading disinformation about climate science and policy, and punted on the question of who should pay for climate damages.

With apologies to Harper’s Index, here’s a Fossil Fuel Company Climate Liability Index, followed by six key facts illuminated by these numbers.

FACT: Fossil fuel companies are the main beneficiaries of our fossil-fueled energy system and economy

The benefits of fossil fuels have not accrued equitably, and the fossil fuel industry has compounded its advantage by externalizing its costs. Major fossil fuel companies profit handsomely from an energy system dependent on their products. The five defendants netted more than $40 billion in 2017, alone. Maintaining the status quo may be in the fossil fuel industry’s interest, but a low-carbon pathway is necessary to protect the climate and renewable energy is increasingly competitive. Judge Alsup’s ruling presented a false choice between climate action and energy access, echoing the rhetoric of defendants ExxonMobil and Chevron that fossil fuels are necessary to support economic growth, health, and education in low-income countries.

FACT: Fossil fuel companies exercise undue political influence to block policy solutions

The defendant companies have invested some of their enormous profits in political contributions, direct lobbying, and indirect lobbying through such trade associations and industry groups as the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). NAM’s ironically named Manufacturers’ Accountability Project (MAP), the fossil fuel industry’s attack dog on climate liability lawsuits, did a happy dance about the dismissal of the suit.

Thus, the judge’s conclusion that climate change is a matter for the legislature and the executive branch is a Catch-22 that makes my brain hurt. Yes, Congress and the White House should take decisive action to curb climate change, but the fossil fuel industry has pulled out all the stops in an effort to block strong federal policies. The industry has friends in high places in the Trump administration: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to name just a few. Just this week, Buzzfeed broke the news that Pruitt urged fossil fuel executives to apply for EPA regional administrator positions.

The defendant companies are not just responding to consumer demand. They do what they can to fix the market through undue political influence, which has forestalled the development and availability of renewable energy. And the duty of the legislative and executive branches to act does not absolve the judicial branch of responsibility.

FACT: Fossil fuel companies are investing significantly more in oil and gas exploration than in R&D for clean energy

Investments by ExxonMobil, Chevron and other oil and gas companies in low-carbon research and development are a drop in the bucket compared to their spending on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure. Even a former ExxonMobil engineer has argued that what is needed is research focused on how to supply affordable low-carbon energy while also reducing fossil fuel demand. ‘Nuff said.

FACT: Burning fossil fuels is the single most significant contributor to global warming, and scientists can increasingly quantify how much

Judge Alsup earned praise for acknowledging that the magnitude of the climate change problem is vast and urgent. Yet his description of carbon dioxide as “a gas produced by, among other things, animal and human respiration, volcanoes and, more significantly here, combustion of fossil fuels like oil and natural gas” is more than a little misleading, given that the burning of fossil fuels is the most significant contributor to global warming by far.

Scientists’ ability to quantify the damage due specifically to human-caused climate change is growing quickly. A UCS-led study published last September in the scientific journal Climatic Change for the first time links global climate changes, including the sea level rise at issue in the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits, to the product-related emissions of specific fossil fuel producers, including the defendants. Importantly, the study also quantified the climate change impacts of emissions traced to these companies’ products from 1980 to 2010, when these major fossil fuel companies knew the risks of burning fossil fuels and not only failed to take steps to reduce those risks but also funded a concerted campaign to deceive the public and block action.

The top five investor-owned companies ranked in terms of cumulative emissions — Chevron, ExxonMobil, British Petroleum, Shell, and ConocoPhillips — are responsible for one-eighth (12.5%) of all industrial carbon emissions from 1854 to 2010.

FACT: Taxpayers are already footing the bill for climate damages

According to recent analysis by my UCS colleagues, accelerating sea level rise in the lower 48 states is putting as many as 311,000 coastal homes with a collective market value of about $117.5 billion today at risk of chronic flooding within the next 30 years, the lifespan of a typical mortgage. Chronic property flooding could translate not just into eroding property values, but also into unlivable houses and falling tax revenues that fund local schools, roads and emergency services. The properties at risk by 2045 currently house roughly 550,000 people and contribute nearly $1.5 billion toward today’s property tax base.

The contribution of any single fossil fuel company to a climate impact such as sea level rise may appear small, but the costs of dealing with and preparing for these impacts are enormous and mounting—and taxpayers alone are currently on the hook.

A few inches of sea level rise might not seem dramatic, but it could be the difference between a minor event and a human and financial catastrophe. For example, scientists have found that sea level rise contributed an additional $2 billion in damage to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy in New York City.

FACT: Lawsuits and paying fines aren’t the only way that fossil fuel companies can be held accountable for making climate change worse

It is critical that San Francisco, Oakland and other communities can seek compensation through our courts for the costs of climate-related damages and preparedness. And as tobacco litigation has shown, ensuring that companies pay their fair share of the costs imposed on society by their products is not the only remedy to be secured through judicial action. To be sure, the settlements of state lawsuits against Big Tobacco included billions of dollars in payments to cover health care costs. But the settlements also ordered the public release of millions of pages of previously secret internal documents; brought an end to certain advertising, promotion and marketing practices; and shut down the tobacco industry’s lobbying and junk science shops forever. The reduction in the tobacco industry’s political and economic influence helped clear the way for policies such as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and US Food and Drug Administration tobacco regulations.

Judge Alsup’s dismissal of the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuits is a setback, but the cities can appeal—and their city attorneys have signaled that the case is not over. Likewise, lawsuits by several other communities in California, Colorado, New York and Washington state are now working their way through the courts. The public demand for major fossil fuel companies to be held accountable for damage they knew their products were causing will only grow louder as climate impacts get worse.

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