A day after New York City faced a massive setback in its efforts to hold major oil companies financially accountable for their role in exacerbating climate change, at least one city seem unfazed. Baltimore announced Friday morning that the city would launch its own lawsuit targeting such corporations.
During a news conference at Baltimore’s City Hall, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said that the city will take legal action against a number of oil and gas companies over damages related to climate change.
“Baltimore has suffered two thousand-year storms in the last couple of years,” said Davis, referencing massive, unprecedented weather events that have impacted the East Coast’s fifth-largest city and surrounding metro area. “This is not right, this is not something we should go uncompensated for.”
Filed in state Circuit Court in Baltimore, the lawsuit charges that fossil fuels are exacerbating the city’s sea level rise and hydrological cycle shifts spurring heat waves, drought, and precipitation.
According to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, the city is grappling with weather fluctuations and expects to see the loss of some species and an increase of others, as well as an uptick in asthma and other respiratory issues among residents. A growing demand for cooling power will also place outsized demand on the city’s electrical grid as extreme temperatures spike.
Home to 60 miles of waterfront and a key national port, Baltimore developed a climate action plan in 2012 to address the challenges posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions to the city. Through that plan, Baltimore is working to reduce energy consumption and increase energy efficiency education and outreach, in addition to promoting sustainable waste management and transportation methods.
Now, Charm City is targeting fossil fuel companies.
“The problem is that the [fossil fuel] companies knew of the harm decades ago,” said Davis, as he announced the lawsuit Friday morning. “[They] hid knowledge of the harms from elected officials, from ordinary citizens, and refused to disclose that information.” Had the companies disclosed what they knew, Davis said, the “problem of climate change could have been mitigated significantly.”
Pugh and Davis indicated that they hope the lawsuit will be decided in state court, allowing Maryland the ability to address the issue head-on. The officials said the lawsuit targets 26 oil and gas companies, including energy giants BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil.
“Baltimore is a real American melting pot — an economically and culturally diverse coastal city with a proud heritage and promising future,” said Pugh. “But we’re now on the front lines of climate change because melting ice caps, more frequent heat waves, extreme storms, and other climate consequences caused by fossil fuel companies are threatening our city and imposing real costs on our taxpayers.”
Local environmental groups hailed Baltimore’s decision. Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, executive director for the Maryland Environmental Health Network (MDEHN) told ThinkProgress via email Friday morning that the lawsuit will help “to sound the alarm on the calculable externalities of climate in an age where the facts are known.”
The Baltimore-based group is a member of the Maryland Climate Coalition, which currently represents 16 organizations working together to advance clean energy and climate policies throughout the state.
“The courts exist to provide certainty about big questions and set in motion a framework for accountability,” O’Laughlin said. “There is no bigger question facing us than the costs of inaction on climate.”
Baltimore’s lawsuit is the 13th of its kind and comes a mere day after U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan threw out a similar legal challenge from New York City. The country’s largest city had sought to hold five of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in spurring climate change.
New York argued that ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell should all be held financially responsible for the toll climate change has taken on the city. Judge Keenan agreed on Thursday that the phenomenon is occurring and that Big Oil isn’t helping, writing that “climate science clearly demonstrates that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change.” But he stopped short of agreeing that fossil fuel companies should foot the bill for their actions.
“The immense and complicated problem of global warming requires a comprehensive solution that weighs the global benefits of fossil fuel use with the gravity of the impending harms,” Judge Keenan wrote, punting such decisions to Congress and the executive branch, rather than the courts.
That setback follows similar decisions in California. Less than a month ago, a judge dismissed two climate lawsuits from Oakland and San Francisco, acknowledging the risks posed by climate change but arguing that the courts should not be the ones to decide who should pay for the damage. The two northern California cities had targeted the same five companies named by New York.
Environmental advocates have panned the decisions as a win for fossil fuel companies and a blow to cities struggling to cope with the impact of climate change. But Baltimore’s lawsuit is an indicator that urban hubs are far from dissuaded by the rulings. Other climate accountability lawsuits remain ongoing, with fights in Colorado, Rhode Island, and Washington state’s King County still underway. New York City, meanwhile, is likely to appeal Thursday’s ruling, setting up a longer fight to come.