The growing movement to hold fossil fuel companies financially responsible for the damages associated with climate change scored a major ally on Wednesday, as New York City announced that it would be filing a lawsuit against five of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world.
“Internal industry documents demonstrate that the defendants engaged in large-scale, sophisticated public relations campaigns to portray fossil fuels as environmentally responsible and essential to human well-being — even as their own scientists warned them that continued fossil fuel production would contribute,” NYC Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter said in a press statement, adding that the lawsuit would focus on holding companies accountable for their choice of “profit over the public welfare.”
The lawsuit seeks to recover billions of dollars in damages from BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Royal Dutch Shell for their role in creating — and perpetuating — climate change. According to a press release issued by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, the city is already undertaking over $20 billion in infrastructure updates to protect New York City residents from the consequences of climate change like sea level rise and more powerful storms. Hurricane Sandy, which climate scientists agree was made worse by climate change, caused $19 billion worth of damage to New York City in 2012.
In seeking to recover damages created by climate change, New York City joins a handful of California cities and counties which have already filed similar lawsuits against major fossil fuel companies. In July, San Mateo, Marin County and the city of Imperial Beach all filed separate lawsuits against 37 coal, oil, and gas companies, in an attempt to help pay for current and future infrastructure updates required to deal with sea level rise. Two months later, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland filed similar lawsuits, asking five major fossil fuel producers to pay into a fund to help offset adaption and mitigation costs associated with sea level rise. Most recently, the city of Santa Cruz filed a lawsuit that asks for fossil fuel companies to pay for damages associated not just with sea level rise, but with climate-related changes to the hydrologic cycle and its resulting impact on drought and wildfire.
Though each lawsuit is separate, taken together, they represent a growing trend of city’s seeking to hold fossil fuel companies financially responsible for their role in climate change. Each lawsuit argues that major fossil fuel companies not only had an outsized impact on the production and emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases, but knowingly obscured climate science that might have prompted far-reaching reductions in the use of fossil fuels and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Legal experts have compared the wave of climate lawsuits to the lawsuits brought against the tobacco industry in the 1990s, which ultimately resulted in a $365.5 billion settlement wherein major tobacco producers agreed to pay into a fund to offset health-related tobacco costs. With New York City becoming the first city outside of California to officially file a climate-related liability lawsuit, the comparison becomes even more apt, hinting at the possibility of a multi-state coalition similar to the 46-state coalition that was a part of the tobacco settlement.
“New York City joins a growing list of governments both within and beyond the United States determined to hold Exxon, Shell and other fossil fuel producers accountable for their role in the climate crisis,” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said in a press statement. “The announcements underscore the enormous financial risk facing Exxon and other fossil fuel companies in an era of energy transition and accelerating litigation.”
In response to the California lawsuits, Exxon recently asked a federal judge in Texas to allow the company to depose municipal officials involved with the suits, arguing that depositions would allow the company to uncover “abuse of process, civil conspiracy and violations of Exxon Mobil’s constitutional rights.” Officials involved in the lawsuits have characterized the move as an attempt to derail the legal challenges and dissuade other cities from taking similar action. In addition to New York City, one other non-Californian city — Boulder, Colorado — has indicated an interest in filing a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change.
Beyond the climate lawsuit, New York City also announced a goal of divesting the city’s pension funds from all fossil fuel reserve owners within five years; the city’s five pension funds currently contain some $5 billion in fossil fuel investments.
“New York is not only suing the oil companies, it’s announcing a massive divestment from them,” Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, told ThinkProgress via email. “Together they mean that the mightiest city on earth is taking on its most powerful (and irresponsible) industry with no holds barred. I think it’s a major tipping point: the leaders of the world’s financial center have figured out where the future lies, and it’s not with oil and gas.”