Climate lawsuits point way for greener future

(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

Massive storm clouds raining torrents of water down on lower Manhattan, completely submerging subway cars. Huge plumes of smoke and fire, turning the sky orange over the hills alarmingly close to Los Angeles. The scenes of towns ravaged by hurricanes are reminiscent of an apocalyptic world.

Cities across the nation have begun to experience natural disasters at an alarmingly rapid rate over the past several years. Damage on local infrastructure is costly and inconvenient. According to estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the number of deaths reached a staggering 316 from just nine of the worst domestic natural disasters of 2017. It is more obvious than ever that something must change.

Some cities have begun to respond to this call to action, demanding financial compensation for climate change-related damages. New York City, for one, identified five oil and gas companies as the collective root of the problem, blaming the damages on anthropogenic climate change resulting from the companies’ carbon emissions.

For environmentalists, this is a big step in the right direction. Too often, oil and gas companies skew data and hide evidence that suggests their involvement in climate change. It’s unethical to downplay the negative impact of greenhouse gas emissions, which is exactly what these corporations have been doing for years — and they’ve been getting away with it.

An environmental revolution seems to be just beginning. Los Angeles and San Francisco followed New York’s lead, taking legal action against these petroleum giants after wildfires in California last year cost the state an estimate of nearly $12 billion in damages. Considering the expensive repercussions of climate change, this response is long overdue.

Environmental activist and author Bill McKibben was especially enthusiastic about the New York City lawsuit. McKibben saw the litigating power of massive city governments like those in New York and Los Angeles as an enormous — perhaps decisive — advantage.

“I’ve been watching the climate fight for the last 30 years,” he told The Washington Post in an interview January. “This is one of the handful of most important moments in that 30-year fight.’”

Even though the introduction of lawsuits across the country is an important step, that fight against climate change isn’t anywhere near over yet. If they’re successful, the court actions in New York and California would give fossil fuel companies an incentive to help move toward that greener future — by making them pay up if things keep going south.

These cities have made the first move, and fossil fuel companies haven’t responded well. Executives at ExxonMobil felt inclined to undermine the efforts of California lawyers by threatening a counter lawsuit in early January, calling the cities bringing cases against their company hypocritical and claiming those cities infringed upon Exxon’s civil rights.

In response to the lawsuits, Chevron spokesperson Braden Reddall suggested in an email interview with Bloomberg in early January that legal action would do little to actually effect change.

“This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Reddall wrote.

ExxonMobil spokesman Scott Silvestri also issued a formal statement going even further, calling the lawsuits from the coastal cities too small-minded in scope.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and action,” Silvestri said. “Lawsuits of this kind […] simply do not do that.”

If anything, such a strong response confirms claims of the companies’ underhanded and corrupt behaviors. Fossil fuel companies are unlikely to contribute positively to the issue of climate change until they have a personal stake in the matter — and of course, ExxonMobil and Chevron have a vested interest in not paying up.

Fossil fuel companies do have a point that making them pay up to big coastal cities isn’t by itself enough of a strategy to effect significant long-term change. But that doesn’t mean the lawsuits can’t lead to more robust efforts.

The lawsuit has inspired others to also demand greater ecological protection, prompting numerous companies to divest assets in the fossil fuel industry. After introducing his grievance against the energy companies, for example, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to divest $5 billion of the city’s fossil fuel investments.

Pittsburgh might also benefit from joining in on the fight against high-polluting companies that rely on fossil fuels. The City already has one of the highest annual particle pollution levels for a major metropolitan area in the country, according to 2017 data from the American Lung Association. And incoming industrial projects in the region threaten to worsen air quality significantly. If we want to avoid climate catastrophes like those that have befallen New York and LA, we should think about following their lead.

Environmentalists should be optimistic about the potential impact of these lawsuits and hope to see a real change in the fossil fuel industry. We can make a change, now more than ever.

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