A group of state attorneys general just declared war on big polluters.
The group, representing 17 states, said it will pursue climate change litigation. Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands officially joined an ongoing investigation into potential fraud by ExxonMobil, and all the states committed to working together as “creatively, collaboratively, and aggressively” as possible to combat climate change.
“We have heard the scientists; we know what is being done to the planet,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at a press conference Tuesday in Manhattan. The group also came together to defend the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, formally filing its petition in support of the rule Tuesday in the D.C. District Court of Appeals.
“There is no dispute, but there is confusion,” Schneiderman said. The confusion has been pushed by fossil fuel companies and their interests that use money and power to sway Congress and the American public, he said. Groups with ties to fossil fuel companies have run ad campaigns and spent millions fighting renewable energy development.
ExxonMobil, specifically, is under investigation for knowingly misleading the public and investors on the dangers of climate change, which it allegedly knew about as far back as the 1970s. New York and California had previously announced investigations.
Schneiderman is joined in the coalition by attorneys general from from California, Connecticut, D.C., Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Connecticut Attorney General George Jepson pointed out that one of the big reasons the United States has not seen more movement on climate change has been misinformation.
“Part of the problem has been one of public perception,” Jepson said. “This is about facts and information and transparency.”
Former Vice President Al Gore was also on hand for the coalition’s announcement, and he compared the effort to the legal investigation into Big Tobacco during the 1990s — while getting in some sharp rebukes for Congress’ failure to act.
“What these attorneys general are doing is exceptionally important,” Gore said. “Congress has been sharply constraining the ability of the executive branch to perform its duties.”
He noted that holding Big Tobacco accountable for fraudulently denying that cigarettes cause cancer took 40 years, though.
“We do not have 40 years to continue suffering the consequences of the fraud allegedly being committed by the fossil fuel companies,” he said. That investigation, too, began in the states before the U.S. Department of Justice eventually got involved.
“Our democracy has been hacked,” Gore said. “Otherwise this would be done in Washington.”
Environmental groups applauded the announcement, hoping that Tuesday would go down in history as the beginning of the end for fossil fuel industry efforts to cloud climate science and denigrate clean energy.
"Big Polluters have done everything in their power to deny climate change. It is time for our justice system to take back the climate debate," said Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "If the A.G.s rally behind a unified call, they can make history."
The announcement couldn't come soon enough. Scientists suggest that the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if we are to avoid the catastrophic effects of a climate warmed by 2°C.
Gore rattled off a litany of climate-change related disasters and concerns (on pregnancy warnings following the Zika virus outbreak: "That’s new. That should capture our attention"), and stressed the urgency of the problem.
"Every night on the news it’s like a nature hike through Revelations," the former vice president and climate campaigner said.
An earlier version of this post misspelled the Connecticut attorney general's name. It is spelled Jepson.