Richmond, California has become the ninth city in less than a year to bring major fossil fuel companies to court over climate change. On Monday, the city announced that it was filing a lawsuit against 29 oil, gas, and coal companies — including Chevron, BP, and Exxon — to try and hold them accountable for their role in climate change and its impacts on the community.
The lawsuit comes less than two weeks after New York City became the largest city to file a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for their role in climate change in the hopes of obtaining funds to help offset the cost of adaptation and mitigation projects related to sea level rise. Alongside New York, seven other California cities and counties have filed lawsuits against a range of oil, gas, and coal companies, each seeking damages worth billions of dollars to help pay for current and future infrastructure updates necessitated by climate change. Los Angeles’ city council has also introduced a motion asking the city attorney to look into potentially filing a similar lawsuit on behalf of the city.
Unlike other cities and counties that have filed lawsuits, however, Richmond argues that it is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because of both its location and its particular economic reality. Richmond is surrounded on three sides by water, and is home to some of the poorest communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a median household income of $55,102 and poverty rate of 17.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census. Richmond is also a predominantly Hispanic and black community that has struggled with industrial pollution due to the presence of several oil refineries and plants operated by Chevron.
In filing the lawsuit, Richmond’s mayor highlighted the city’s economic situation as part of the reason for seeking damages from fossil fuel companies, though the lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount of compensation. Cities like New York, for instance, have argued that the costs associated with preparing for future sea level rise — things like sea walls, raising major roads, or buttressing municipal buildings like wastewater treatment plants — could cost as much as $20 billion. And while those costs would certainly be lower for Richmond — which has some 108,000 residents — mitigation and adaptation projects still come with a hefty price tag.
“We have two rail lines, 3,000 acres of public waterfront parks, vulnerable neighborhoods, two wastewater treatment plants, and a refinery, all subject to inundation,” Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said in a press statement. “Sea level rise is already affecting our long-term planning and will cost our community far more than any foreseeable resources we have to mitigate it.
As with the other lawsuits filed against fossil fuel companies by cities and counties, Richmond’s case will likely rest on two major questions: whether attorneys can definitively trace the impacts of climate change, in this case sea level rise as well as wildfires and droughts, to particular companies, and whether it can be shown that those companies knowingly pushed their products despite knowing the harm they could cause.
In previous instances, climate litigation has found little success because of how difficult it has been to tie particular events or consequences to specific actors. In 2008, for instance, the Alaskan village of Kivalina filed a lawsuit against fossil fuel companies for their role in sea level rise; a year later, a district court dismissed the lawsuit because of a lack of evidence linking sea level rise to the actions of particular fossil fuel companies. Because greenhouse gas emissions are created by almost everyone — from companies extracting oil to people driving cars — it’s impossible, the court claimed, to pin the consequences of climate change on a single, or handful, of particularly bad actors.
The body of science attributing specific events or consequences to climate change has evolved significantly in the years since the Kivalina lawsuit, however. Scientists can now determine to what extent climate change made a particular event such as a hurricane, wildfires, or drought more likely or more extreme. Additionally, a growing body of science now exists tying a handful of major fossil fuel companies, known as the Carbon Majors, to post-industrial greenhouse gas emissions. According to a 2017 report from the CDP and the Climate Accountability Institute, just 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.
Climate lawsuits in California also face favorable precedent in the courts, at least with respect to the issue of public nuisance, which the cities and counties claim fossil fuel companies caused through their continued marketing and sale of greenhouse gas-emitting products. Public nuisance lawsuits are the same kinds of suits that have been brought against the tobacco industry, asbestos manufactures, and companies that sold lead paint. In late 2017, the California Court of Appeals ruled that three paint companies had created a public nuisance when they sold lead paint despite knowing it could create public health problems — a precedent that some experts say could help pave the way for success in climate lawsuits.
Still, success is far from certain with these lawsuits. It’s possible that fossil fuel companies, facing financial liability from such suits, would approach Congress for some kind of immunity similar to tobacco companies in the 1990s. And it’s certain that fossil fuel companies will fiercely fight these cases — Exxon has already filed a motion in federal court to depose city officials involved in several of the California lawsuits, arguing that the “abusive law enforcement tactics and litigation” seek to stifle the company’s First Amendment Rights.
Since Exxon filed that motion, both New York and Richmond have filed lawsuits against fossil fuel companies — including Exxon — for their role in climate change.