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California Communities Sue Big Oil for Climate Damages

In what is described as a first-of-its-kind case, two San Francisco Bay-area counties and the city of Imperial Beach, in San Diego County, have launched parallel lawsuits against 37 oil and coal companies, seeking compensation for the damage climate change is doing to their local infrastructure.

Among the defendants named in the suit are “Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and other major energy companies,” SFGate reports. “Lawyers for the three communities worked together to document such effects as more frequent flooding and beach erosion, as well as the possibility that water will eventually inundate roads, airports, sewage treatment plants, and other real estate.”

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The suits’ liability assertion rests on the contention “that the oil companies knew about the damage their actions were causing, denied it, and sought to discredit scientific findings that greenhouse gas emissions were heating the Earth’s atmosphere.” Similar arguments led to billion-dollar liability settlements against tobacco companies that sought to suppress science linking their products to elevated mortality from cancer.

In its claim, San Mateo County asserts that freeways, rapid transit lines, San Francisco International Airport, “and US$39 billion worth of assessed property are threatened by projected sea-level rise,” SFGate notes. “Marin County counts $15.5 billion worth of North Bay real estate in harm’s way, along with ferry terminals, rail tracks, and Interstate 580.” Other reports have estimated that as many as 13 million Americans face displacement this century, in California and elsewhere, as a result of rising sea levels.

The three parallel suits “claim that energy company executives knew for nearly 50 years that fossil fuel development was warming the planet, but that they concealed their knowledge while continuing to push a destructive product,” SFGate reports.

“This is a long-anticipated move in climate litigation,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “You’ll find pieces of it in other cases, but bringing it together like this is different than what’s been done before. You can expect there will be a great deal of interest in how this litigation proceeds.”

U.S. courts have been reluctant to rule in favour of other challenges similarly based on assertions of public nuisance. They have repeatedly rejected cities’ efforts to hold gun manufacturers to account for the cost of emergency and medical services provided to gunshot victims, for example. However, a group of American children asking the courts to order more aggressive government policies to avert future climate disruption has had some success in lower courts.