San Francisco and Oakland just became the first major U.S. cities to file a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies in an effort to hold them accountable for the effects of climate change that the two highly-populated cities have already begun experiencing. Both cities foresee major construction and damages in the near future that needs to be prevented or fixed, and they have pointed to Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell. These companies are among five of the biggest investor-owned fossil fuel companies.
San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera and Oakland city attorney Barbara J. Parker each filed their own lawsuit on the same day, both citing that the fossil fuel companies have known about their part in climate change since at least the 1970s or 1980s. According to the lawsuits, the companies took this information, which was confirmed by outside scientists as well as their own, and covered it up rather than attending to it.
“These fossil fuel companies profited handsomely for decades while knowing they were putting the fate of our cities at risk,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said. “Instead of owning up to it, they copied a page from the Big Tobacco playbook. They launched a multi-million dollar disinformation campaign to deny and discredit what was clear even to their own scientists: global warming is real, and their product is a huge part of the problem. Now, the bill has come due. It’s time for these companies to take responsibility for the harms they have caused and are continuing to cause.”
When he refers to Big Tobacco and the campaign, he is talking about the campaign that led many to believe that climate change was simply a conspiracy and to become one of many “climate deniers,” of which there are still many to this day. The companies’ refusal to reduce their emissions and allow their contribution to the greenhouse effect to continue for decades longer than it should have is exactly why these cities, as well as several other California counties, are going after the companies.
The cities are each requesting an abatement fund for the “public nuisance” that climate change has caused, which would be paid for by the companies for infrastructure costs, both public and private. They estimate that at least $10 billion in public property is at risk as well as $39 billion in private property. The cities would have to put up sea walls to combat the rising sea levels caused by climate change, among other necessary changes.
“Global warming is an existential threat to humankind, to our ecosystems and to the wondrous, myriad species that inhabit our planet,” Oakland City Attorney Barbara J. Parker said. “These companies knew fossil fuel-driven climate change was real, they knew it was caused by their products and they lied to cover up that knowledge to protect their astronomical profits. The harm to our cities has commenced and will only get worse. The law is clear that the defendants are responsible for the consequences of their reckless and disastrous actions.”
Interestingly, climate experts Peter C. Frumhoff and Myles R. Allen recently released the results of their study on who is most responsible for climate change and found that “nearly 30% of the rise in global sea level between 1880 and 2010 resulted from emissions traced to the 90 largest carbon producers.” The authors believe that natural disasters resulting from extreme weather events like hurricanes should be paid for by fossil fuel companies for their part in worsening climate change, not taxpayers.
Some of the companies named in the recent lawsuits responded to requests for comment and they seem open enough to speak but not acknowledge their lasting contribution to climate change, despite already losing previous lawsuits.
Chevron, which is actually based in San Ramon, California, said it “welcomes serious attempts to address the issue of climate change, but these suits do not do that.” Other companies said that they have long recognized climate change, but believe that what needs to be addressed are cultural and policy changes, not decisions made in court on a case-by-case basis.
Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco is estimated to increase in temperature by “8.6°F, increase current “100-year flood” events to occur 92 times per year, and increase sea levels by 66 inches by 2100. Upgrades to the sea wall are estimated to cost $500 million short-term, and $5 billion long term. It is also estimated that the city will have to spend $350 million to upgrade their sewer and storm water infrastructure.”