By Calista Triantis

Local cities and counties are leading the way in holding fossil fuel companies legally responsible for climate change. San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, Santa Cruz County, San Mateo County and Marin County have all joined multi-billion-dollar lawsuits across the U.S. against major oil companies for the impacts of climate change on their communities.

This spring the 9th Circuit allowed these lawsuits to continue in state court rather than federal court, where oil companies are usually favored. A ruling in favor of the cities and counties would not only financially mitigate the infrastructure these communities need to adapt but also would legitimize the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for the damages of climate change. On July 9 Stanford Law School hosted a panel on the status and potential of these lawsuits. Here are some key takeaways.

The lawsuit seeks financial mitigation for the damages of sea level rise, wildfires and other risks on local communities. Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears said regions of her county (for example, sections of Highway 101) already experience seasonal flooding. A vulnerability assessment that the county conducted in 2017 estimated a loss of more than 12,000 properties (approximately $16 billion in property value) by the end of the century. Meanwhile, other effects of global warming have emerged in California, such as increasingly intense wildfires that destroy homes and lives. In 2017 Marin County joined other communities suing fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell and ExxonMobil, to hold them accountable for these and other climate damages.

The evidence is strong. Similar climate liability lawsuits were attempted in the 2000s, but these were against smaller emitters like power plants rather than fossil fuel producers. Today scientific evidence and recent discoveries concerning fossil fuel companies’ understanding of climate change provide a clearer pathway to proving causation, noted Anne Carlson, professor and co-director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. She said we now have the science to attribute emissions and impact on sea level rise to each defendant. Further, there is documented evidence of the fossil fuel industry’s knowledge, perpetuation and obstruction of climate risk.

The lawsuits’ defendants are charged with knowingly continuing to produce and sell petroleum products, the leading contributors to climate change, and shielding their assets from its harm while misleading the public. The panel’s moderator, Benjamin Franta, who has studied the history and behavior of these firms, said newly uncovered documents show that fossil fuel companies, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy and Shell have known for 40 to 50 years about the risks of climate change and protected their own assets from these risks. Yet they not only continued their destructive practices but also have poured millions into comprehensive disinformation campaigns, and to this day continue to fund lobbying against the energy transition. The impact of the companies’ continued climate destruction and misrepresentation on derailing climate action is at the core of these lawsuits.

Together, this evidence comprises a strong case that the defendants “knowingly created or assisted in creating a substantial and unreasonable interference with the public right,” said Professor Carlson, referring to the legal standard that must be met in order to show that companies contributed to a public nuisance.

These proceedings demand persistent, experienced litigators. Sharon Eubanks, chief counsel for the National Whistleblower Center, compared these cases to her experience with the government’s case against the tobacco industry. She predicted the defendants will try “countless motions on silly things” to delay the point of discovery and trial. But with experienced litigators determined to make it to the discovery period, Carlson pointed out that more incriminating evidence of what these companies knew and did will heighten the conversation, noting, “In the tobacco litigation, it was that slow unveiling of very damaging evidence to the tobacco executives and companies that really turned the tide.”

These cases will set the stage for future conversations on climate liability. These lawsuits are not making demands concerning the role of fossil fuel companies in a green future; they only ask that they pay for the harm they have caused. However, they represent an exciting step in holding fossil fuels accountable for their role in climate change. Countless communities, particularly low-income and Black and Indigenous communities of color, experience the effects of climate change without adequate response, compensation or recognition. A favorable ruling in these lawsuits would mean not only justice for the plaintiffs but also an important step toward defending these communities.

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Calista Triantis is an intended Anthropology B.A. Candidate at Stanford University with an intended minor in Sustainability in the Class of 2023. She is serving as a summer intern with Sustainable San Mateo County.