When Superstorm Sandy swooped down on northern New Jersey and New York City in October 2012, it caused more than $71 billion in economic damage, according to the National Hurricane Center. New York City has spent billions to repair the damage. Now it wants the 5 largest oil companies to reimburse it for its losses and pay for the infrastructure improvements needed to protect the city from the impacts of rising sea levels and even more powerful storms in the future. The legal language is more flowery that this, but in effect, New York City is saying to the oil companies, “You caused this mess, now clean it up.”
The lawsuit adds to another superstorm gathering on the horizon — a blizzard of lawsuits begun by the cities of San Francisco, Oakland, and others. While ExxonMobil dithers and dances around demands by its stockholders to release information about how climate change will affect its business model, “there’s a battle outside and it’s raging,” in the words of Bob Dylan.
The basis of the lawsuit is simple, reports ArsTechnica. The companies knew the harm their products were causing but crafted a carefully coordinated strategy to lie to the public so they could continue to profit from their activities.
“Disregarding the findings of their own internal scientists and scientific consultants, Defendants re-committed themselves to fossil fuel exploration, production, marketing, and sales over the ensuing decades,” the suit claims.
“The significant majority of emissions resulting from fossil fuels produced and marketed by Defendants occurred after Defendants became aware of the consequences of climate change.”
The lawsuit alleges the companies started modifying their own infrastructure to protect themselves from climate change while funding scientists willing to prostitute themselves to tell the public a very different story. To a large extent, the “climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese” legend, which has wormed its way into the highest levels of government and is believed by a significant number of Americans, was bought and paid for the oil companies.
As we reported recently, as long ago as 1959, Edward Teller at a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute — a mouthpiece organization created and funded by the fossil fuel industry — warned senior executives that burning fossil fuels would inevitably lead to global warming and the harm that goes with it. Scientific studies commissioned by the industry reached the same conclusion.
Old Legal Principles Are New Again
The NYC legal action relies on some bedrock legal concepts. “This lawsuit is based upon the fundamental principle that a corporation that makes a product causing severe harm when used exactly as intended should shoulder the costs of abating that harm.” It also alleges the defendants have created a public nuisance. That argument is phrased like this in the complaint: “Defendants’ conduct constitutes a substantial and unreasonable interference with and obstruction of public rights and property, including the public rights to health, safety, and welfare of a considerable number of people who reside in and visit New York City.”
Lastly, the city claims the companies have trespassed on property owned by the city. That’s a novel idea and it goes like this. What the companies have done over the past 5 decades “was substantially certain to result in the invasion of property owned by the City, without permission or right of entry, by way of increased heat, sea level rise, storm surge flooding, and flooding from increased intensity and frequency of precipitation.”
A Blizzard Of Lawsuits
The factor that connects the New York City legal action with other lawsuits around the country in both state and federal courts is the discovery process. Under court rules, parties to a lawsuit are entitled to disclosure of all relevant documents, emails, internal memos, and so forth. Once disclosed, that information becomes available to others with similar claims.
Eric Schneiderman and Maura Healey, attorneys general for the state of New York and Massachusetts, are pursuing the same companies in federal court. Our Children’s Trust is going after them in federal court in Oregon. All of them are forcing the companies to disclose what they knew and when they knew it and that knowledge then enters the public domain. The disclosure of dastardly dealings is what eventually made the groundbreaking suits against the tobacco industry successful. The mountain of evidence against the oil companies is growing higher every day.
NYC To Divest From Oil Stocks
On the same day the new lawsuit was announced, New York City also declared it will divest from fossil fuel stocks in its $200 billion pension fund within 5 years. Those stocks are currently valued at $5 billion. Having New York City join the divestment movement will put even more pressure on the oil companies as investors begin to ask themselves if those stocks are too risky and lenders begin to question whether loans made to the industry are wise.
Climate Activists React
Reacting to both announcements, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, was ecstatic. In many ways, McKibben is the paterfamilias of the climate change movement in the US.
Naomi Klein, who has written extensively about climate change, including in her excellent book This Changes Everything, was enthusiastic in her praise for the city of New York. According to a press release from the office of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Klein said, “Right now, the tremendous costs of climate disruption are socialized — the public is stiffed with ballooning bills from mega-disasters and the most vulnerable communities are suffering the worst impacts. Meanwhile, the extravagant profits that flow from overheating our planet are systematically privatized.
“By suing these five oil majors who knowingly deepened the climate crisis, New York City is taking a game-changing first step in reversing this perverse injustice — many other cities and states are sure to follow. Today’s double announcement is a reminder that fossil fuel divestment isn’t just a moral decision: it meets the highest standards of fiduciary responsibility as well. In a rapidly warming world, oil, gas and coal stocks are simply too high risk.”
One Small Step Forward
It’s too early to start dancing in the streets, however. Even though most who visit CleanTechnica may welcome this news, the wheels of justice turn very s-l-o-w-l-y. It could be years before there is any final resolution to the various suits now pending, and when it arrives, it will come from the US Supreme Court. That court today is dominated by confirmed corporatarians who have been spoon fed by the Koch brothers and others to believe corporations can do no wrong.
Even if the Supremes, in their infinite wisdom, should rule in favor of those suing the oil companies, they will be no more successful at ordering the seas to stop rising than King Canute was when he set his throne on the seashore and ordered the tide to cease and desist. It might also be instructive to point out that tobacco companies are still selling their death-dealing products to people all around the globe, so our joy should be tempered with a bit of reality.
There is still a long, long road ahead if we wish the earth to remain capable of supporting life as we know it. But in the Age of Ignorance sponsored by the #FakePresident, the action taken by the city of New York is one tiny ray of sunshine. And for that, we should be grateful.