How Climate Lawsuits Seek to Hold Big Oil Accountable

US cities, counties, and states want fossil fuel companies to pay up for climate damages

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Every Monday, in Climate on the Ballot, we pass along a topic to help you integrate climate into your newsroom’s campaign reporting. Consider sharing this newsletter with your colleagues on the politics beat. Vea la versión en español de “El clima en la boleta.”

This Week: Climate Lawsuits

Last year alone, the US recorded a billion-dollar weather or climate disaster every two weeks. As communities suffer the worsening climate impacts, cities and states around the US are suing fossil fuel companies for damages. Their central argument? Big Oil has known for decades that their products were causing climate change and lied about it — and that those companies should now be held accountable.

If successful, these lawsuits could put fossil fuel companies on the hook for billions of dollars. So they’re fighting back with lobbying, PR campaigns, and appeals, arguing to the US Supreme Court that these cases should be thrown out of state courts because, they say, emissions are a federal issue. Last week, Big Oil got a win when the Supreme Court delayed a case brought by Honolulu against oil and gas majors and asked the Biden administration to offer feedback.

Fossil fuel companies aren’t alone in fighting accountability. Last month, 19 Republican attorneys general sued the five states that have brought suits against fossil fuel companies. These lawsuits offer rich story opportunities for political journalists.

Reporting Ideas

  • Report on lawsuits in your state or region. Since 2017, more than 30 cities, counties, and states have filed lawsuits seeking financial damages for losses due to fossil fuel emissions and climate change. According to Grist, a quarter of all Americans live in jurisdictions suing Big Oil. The suits are evolving to include other charges, too. For example, just last Monday, California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, amended that state’s suit to include charges related to a new state law requiring companies to give up profits made while deceiving consumers. Report on the status of these cases, and ask the lawyers what the Supreme Court delay means for their cases.
  • Are legislators in your state considering a “climate superfund” bill? In May, Vermont became the first state to enact a law requiring fossil fuel companies to pay for climate damages. Last week, the NY State Assembly passed a similar bill. Modeled on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1980 Superfund program that held polluters financially responsible for clean up, “climate superfund” laws require companies to pay in the wake of climate disasters. No suits have been filed yet, but Patrick Parenteau, an emeritus professor of law at Vermont Law and Graduate School, says it’s sure to end up in court.
  • Ask attorneys general where they stand. The lawsuit filed by Republican attorneys general with the Supreme Court to block five states’ from pursuing climate change lawsuits against oil companies is “highly unusual,” Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told AP. Twenty Republican AGs also filed an amicus brief in the Honolulu case appeal before the Supreme Court. Is your state’s AG involved with these climate suits? Ask members of the public who have suffered damages from fossil fuel impacts whether they feel their attorney general is working in their interest.
  • What do voters in your state think about suing Big Oil? A new poll finds that a majority (62%) of Americans believe that fossil fuel companies “should be held legally accountable for their contributions to climate change.” (The breakdown by party: 84% of Democrats, 59% of Independents, and 40% of Republicans.) Important findings to consider if these cases go to trial and juries are asked to decide.

Take Inspiration

  • A blockbuster investigative piece in Rolling Stone exposed a dark money campaign led by Leonard Leo pushing for the Supreme Court to put a stop to the Honolulu lawsuit.
  • Many of the lawsuits against Big Oil use journalism to back up their claims in court, including the Honolulu case which cites investigative reports from the Los Angeles Times, Inside Climate News, and The Guardian “showing oil companies’ own research projected the dangers of climate change decades ago, even as the industry tried to undermine scientific consensus about the crisis,” reports Stateline.
  • In Wisconsin, student activists demonstrated outside the office of Attorney General Josh Kaul earlier this year, demanding that he sue the fossil fuel industry. Madison-based KWOW spoke with the teens and Kaul, who said that he was waiting “to see what unfolds in some other states.”
  • Public nuisance and consumer protection are the legal claims underpinning most climate lawsuits, but New Jersey and Puerto Rico are including another charge in their complaints: racketeering. “These racketeering lawsuits aren’t just for the Mafia anymore; they’ve also been successful against tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris, and pharmaceutical executives tied to the opioid epidemic,” reports Grist.

Spotlight Piece

What do last week’s far-right victories in the EU suggest about this year’s US elections? Although far right and populist parties are gaining ground on both continents, “there are key differences between the dynamics in Europe and the US,” reports AP. European politicians are “much less openly authoritarian than Trump,” says Harvard political scientist and How Democracies Die author Steven Levitsky. “None of these guys have rejected election results.”

Announcing Locally Sourced!

We’re excited to announce the launch of Locally Sourced, a new biweekly newsletter to help journalists make the global issue of climate change resonate with local audiences, this coming Tuesday, June 18. Sign up.

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