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As Maui, Hawaii begins its “managed retreat” from its coastline due to sea-level rise caused by climate change, the county filed a lawsuit this week against big oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips to pay the costs of the move. The suit alleges that the companies knew that their products produced damaging greenhouse gasses that accelerated rising global temperatures, and hid those risks from the county’s businesses and citizens in order to maximize their profits. The case joins a growing number of similar lawsuits from cities and governments across the country, including suits filed by Baltimore and New York City.
Why This Matters: Maui’s economy is highly reliant on tourism — and what makes it an attractive destination are things like scenic coastal roads and beach hotels. On the island of Maui, 3,100 acres of land, 760 structures, and 11.2 miles of major roads, totaling over $3.2 billion in assets, are at risk of being destroyed by rising sea levels by the year 2100. Fire is a big problem there too, and 2019 was the hottest year on record for Maui. The losses to the county and local businesses due to climate change are huge and there are documents that show that the oil companies knew of the impacts their products would cause. That ought to make the oil companies nervous.
Climate Impacts Are Real and Costly Now For Cities And States
The losses claimed in this litigation are real and can be tied directly to climate change, For example, in Hawaii, ports and airports that bring tourists and resources to and from the island are threatened. The lawsuit explains, “since the county is almost entirely dependent upon imported food, fuel, and material, the vulnerability of ports and airports to extreme events, sea-level rise, and increasing wave heights is of serious concern. The lawsuit states that nothing will be safe from this catastrophic damage; cultural heritage sites, burial grounds, residences, and the habitats of native and endangered species all face destruction. If the county wins, the oil companies will have to help the island build infrastructure to prevent damage from wildfires and rising sea levels and support residents and businesses negatively impacted in the future.
But, but, but despite these strong claims, there is a question about whether these cases should be heard in state or federal courts. Cities, states, and counties have filed most of their cases in state courts where local laws are more relevant to the unique dangers they face from climate change. Corporations argue that cases belong in federal courts, where they’ve successfully argued in previous cases that issues of climate are best left to Congress’ discretion. The issue of state versus federal courts will soon be settled by the Supreme Court. And President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, if confirmed, will likely tip the scales in favor of fossil fuel companies and make it even more difficult to win climate cases. Barrett has ties to big oil and her father spent most of his legal career working for Shell.
The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol was the culmination of years of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and false narratives pushed by the GOP, the Trump administration, white supremacists, and the far-right — but these tactics are not a surprise to those who work in the climate movement. Indeed, experts like John Schwartz, a science writer for The New York Times, the lies and rhetoric that fueled the riots felt all too familiar.
Why This Matters: The fossil fuel industry employed the big tobacco disinformation playbook, a strategy that only became more effective with the onset of the internet age.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on this issue in BP Plc v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, which could determine whether or not oil companies are held accountable for climate change damages to cities and states.
Why This Matters: If SCOTUS rules in favor of BP, future climate litigation will likely be fought in federal courts, which experts say are “less responsive to expansive legal theories,” and thus less likely to rule in favor of these innovative new climate cases based on state law. Whoever wins this case will have a leg up in future climate litigation.
This week we sat down with Dr. Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University to talk about his new book The New Climate War in which he examined a century of history to break down science misinformation tactics deployed by industries like tobacco and oil and gas that were used to […]
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