PanaTimes

Saturday, Feb 04, 2023

How US climate lawsuits could hold Big Oil accountable

How US climate lawsuits could hold Big Oil accountable

If successful, a growing wave of lawsuits could force companies to pay for climate adaptation, experts say.

The Hawaiian island of Oahu is experiencing record downpours called “rain bombs” and homes and highways are disappearing into the sea. Across the island, rising tides could displace thousands of people in the years ahead and cost the economy billions of dollars.

The state capital Honolulu is among 19 local governments across the United States seeking damages from energy giants, alleging they knew in the 1970s that burning fossil fuels would cause catastrophic climate change.

But instead of deploying alternative energy systems, the industry launched a campaign to deceive the public about climate science so they could continue to sell their products, the Hawaiian lawsuit alleges.

The earliest US lawsuits were filed in California in 2017. Since then, oil companies have shifted them to the federal court, which they see as friendlier, but judges have booted them back to the state courts. New Jersey filed the latest suit in October, accusing the industry of contributing to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.

Denise Antolini, a University of Hawaii law professor, told Al Jazeera the cases were having a “snowball effect”, as early successes encouraged more jurisdictions to sue. The Honolulu complaint was filed in 2020 and is now moving into the discovery phase.

Antolini, who has lived on Oahu’s northern shore since 1990, has watched as erosion and sea-level rise have eaten away at famous beaches, with the state scrambling to adapt.



“Will these cases help us get off of fossil fuels? I think the answer is yes. But it is complicated because the world is so addicted to fossil fuels, including Hawaii,” she said. “It’ll be a long, slow road, but these cases speed us up toward the right future.”

World leaders meet in Egypt this week to negotiate emissions limits at the United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27. But a new UN report found there is “no credible pathway” to prevent average temperatures from rising by more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, citing “woefully insufficient” progress towards this international goal.

The US climate lawsuits are one bright spot in global climate action, experts say, just as cases against Big Tobacco in the 1990s resulted in a settlement of more than $200bn against cigarette companies.

The lawsuits could force executives to testify under oath, make companies pay for climate adaptation and change how firms do business, Antolini said.


‘Costly consequences’


The fossil-fuel industry knew as early as the 1950s that greenhouse gases could warm the planet, the Honolulu lawsuit alleges, citing a nuclear physicist’s warning at an American Petroleum Institute (API) event in 1959 that rising carbon dioxide levels could melt ice caps and submerge coastal cities.

By 1965, the suit alleges, the defendants were aware of scientific research showing that the widespread use of fossil fuels would cause global warming by the end of the century, with “wide-ranging and costly consequences”. Towards the end of the decade, API commissioned studies that linked rising carbon dioxide levels to fossil fuels, and in 1972, the institute sent a report to large fossil-fuel companies warning of the associated risks.

In 1979, API and fossil-fuel companies named as defendants in the Honolulu lawsuit launched a task force to monitor government and academic research on climate change, according to the complaint. By 1988, the industry “had amassed a compelling body of knowledge” on how burning fossil fuels would warm the planet and cause climate chaos, including extreme rainfall, drought and heat waves.

But instead of controlling carbon emissions, the industry tried to control the message, the suit alleges, with a decades-long campaign to conceal, discredit and misrepresent scientific evidence.

In 1988, an Exxon public affairs manager wrote in a memo that the company should “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse Effect”. In 1991, the Information Council for the Environment, whose members included oil companies, launched a national climate denial campaign attempting to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact)”.

“Disinformation works best when we anchor it in just a teeny sliver of truth, and then you just warp it, and that’s what they did – raise uncertainty, raise doubt where there was none,” Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, told Al Jazeera.

The campaign has been successful, he added.

“The US doesn’t have a climate policy that actually addresses emissions. They’ve won this battle.”




But the slew of lawsuits across the US, if successful, could ultimately change how Big Oil acts in the long term, Wiles said. “If the companies have to actually pay for all the damages they’ve caused, that’s going to be a huge disincentive.”

“Maybe not for them to drill, but for people to invest in those companies because the liability is just too enormous … You only really need one win. The industry knows that – they know they’ve got to win them all. They can’t afford to lose any of these cases.”

Al Jazeera reached out to lawyers for Chevron, Shell, Exxon and BHP, all named in the Honolulu lawsuit.

Chevron was the only company that responded, calling the wave of climate lawsuits “baseless”.

“Government officials, in Hawaii and elsewhere, have had access to facts and information underlining the potential causes of global climate change – including a connection with fossil-fuel use by consumers, the government, and industries – since at least the 1950s.”


Weak spot


Experts say that without action from the courts, the US Congress is unlikely to tackle emissions in a meaningful way.

The oil industry has seen “ungodly levels of profit”, Antolini said, but its weak spot is insurance backing. “Insurers will deny coverage when the harm was not accidental but intentional.”

One defendant, Aloha Petroleum, is suing its insurer for refusing to back its costs in the Honolulu case.

“Imagine if the insurance companies all said no,” Antolini said. “That would fundamentally change their risk calculation about how they conduct business.”

Dan Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed that insurance is a weak spot.

“This will reinforce concerns that the banking industry already has, and also concerns that major investors have, about the fossil-fuel industry and whether it’s a good investment,” he told Al Jazeera. “So I think this definitely puts pressure on them, the longer these cases stick around.”




The industry’s response to the Honolulu case indicates what their strategy could be going forward.

In a response filed in September, Chevron cited local media coverage in the 1950s that suggested burning coal and oil might increase carbon dioxide, creating a greenhouse effect that could melt snow in polar regions.

Yet, “Hawaii continued to promote and encourage the production and use of oil and natural gas”, the company’s legal counsel told Al Jazeera, adding that the case did not “identify a single false statement by Chevron”.

The Honolulu lawsuit does cite a 1998 API Global Climate Science Communications Plan, developed by representatives of Chevron and others, that strategised ways to raise “uncertainty” among the public. The plan noted that “victory will be achieved when … average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science [and when] recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom'”.

Chevron’s filing also cites references to climate change in 1980s and ’90s pop culture, including Captain Planet, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Calvin and Hobbes.

But, according to Antolini, “the defendants’ argument that climate change was well known is not the issue”.

“The issue is, what did defendants know and when did they know it? And when did they disclose it?” she said. “Captain Planet is not going to be their hero.”

Comments

Oh ya 87 days ago
Take all these that oppose fossil fuel and cut them off of anything that is connected to it. . They would be naked in the forest hunting for a handful of barriers

Newsletter

Related Articles

PanaTimes
Close
0:00
0:00
Tennessee Bill Would Imprison People for 3 Years If They 'Lie' About Rape to Get an Abortion.
Charlie Munger, calls for a ban on cryptocurrencies in the US, following China's lead
EU found a way to use frozen Russian funds
First generation unopened iPhone set to fetch more than $50,000 at auction.
WARNING GRAPHIC CONTENT - US Memphis Police murdering innocent Tyre Nichols
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he will block Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from serving on the House Intelligence Committee
Almost 30% of professionals say they've tried ChatGPT at work
Interpol seeks woman who ran elaborate exam cheating scam in Singapore
What is ChatGPT?
Bill Gates is ‘very optimistic’ about the future: ‘Better to be born 20 years from now...than any time in the past’
Tesla reported record profits and record revenues for 2022
Germany confirms it will provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks
Prince Andrew and Virginia Giuffre Photo Is Fake: Ghislaine Maxwell
Opinion | Israel’s Supreme Court Claims a Veto on Democracy
Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin Gets Married On His 93rd Birthday
Who’s Threatening Israeli Democracy?
Federal Reserve Probes Goldman’s Consumer Business
China's first population drop in six decades
Microsoft is finalising plans to become the latest technology giant to reduce its workforce during a global economic slowdown
Tesla slashes prices globally by as much as 20 percent
1.4 Million Copies Of Prince Harry's Memoir 'Spare' Sold On 1st Day In UK
After Failing To Pay Office Rent, Twitter May Sell User Names
Lisa Marie Presley, singer and daughter of Elvis, dies aged 54
FIFA president questioned by prosecutors
Britain's Sunak breaks silence and admits using private healthcare
Hype and backlash as Harry's memoir goes on sale. Unnamed royal source says prince 'kidnapped by cult of psychotherapy and Meghan'
Saudi Arabia set to overtake India as fastest-growing major economy this year 
Google and Facebook’s dominance in digital ads challenged by rapid ascent of Amazon and TikTok
FTX fraud investigators are digging deeper into Sam Bankman-Fried's inner circle – and reportedly have ex-engineer Nishad Singh in their sights
TikTok CEO Plans to Meet European Union Regulators
France has banned the online sale of paracetamol until February, citing ongoing supply issues
Japan reportedly to give families 1 million yen per child to move out of Tokyo
Will Canada ever become a real democracy?
Hong Kong property brokerages slash payrolls in choppy market
U.S. Moves to Seize Robinhood Shares, Silvergate Accounts Tied to FTX
Effect of EU sanctions on Moscow is ‘less than zero’ – Belgian MEP
Coinbase to Pay $100 Million in Settlement With New York Regulator
FTX assets worth $3.5bn held by Bahamas securities regulator
A Republican congressman-elect is under investigation in New York after he admitted he lied about his education and work experience.
Brazilian football legend Pele, arguably the greatest player ever, has died at the age of 82.
Hong Kong to scrap almost all its Covid rules
EU calls screening of travellers from China unjustified
US imposes Covid testing for visitors from China
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Addresses Joint Session of Congress - FULL SPEECH
Where is Rishi? Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's excuses about the UK's economic challenges just don't make sense
Former FTX CEO Bankman-Fried finally arrested in Bahamas after U.S. files charges
Corruption works: House Financial Services Chair Waters doesn't plan to subpoena her donor, Sam Bankman-Fried, to testify at hearing on FTX collapse
Ronaldo's new contract...
Prince William's godmother resigns honorary royal role after exposing her/their racism
Tax fraud verdict again exposes illusion of Trump the master businessman
×