State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Can Fossil Fuel Companies Be Held Liable For Climate Change?

oil rig
Photo: Pixabay

By Justin Gundlach

We know that burning fossil fuels is the main cause of anthropogenic climate change, and that climate change is the source of adverse impacts on communities and even regional and national economies. Those impacts—sometimes irksome, sometimes devastating—are increasingly obvious, and the causal mechanisms that connect them to greenhouse gas emissions is increasingly well understood. In addition to this basic causal link, we know something more: the companies that profit from extracting fossil fuels have understood this aspect of climate science for some time, yet their response has not been to stem the harmful flow of emissions. Instead, it has been to stem and confuse the flow of information about climate change to the public and political leaders.

These points are largely undisputed. What remains very hotly disputed is whether they do or should add up to legal liability on the part of companies that profit from the extraction and sale of fossil fuels. On October 23, Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law hosted a discussion about this issue among several leading experts.

Peter Frumhoff, director of Science & Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, led off, presenting two key points. First, new research has found that, for the period between 1880 and 2010, just 90 fossil fuel companies were responsible for 57 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions account for 42 to 50 percent of the rise in mean sea surface temperatures, and 26 to 32 percent of global sea level rise.

Frumhoff’s second point related to campaigns launched in the 1990s by leading fossil fuel firms, most notoriously ExxonMobil, to sow doubt among the public regarding climate science. These campaigns were undertaken a decade or more after scientists on these companies’ payrolls had confirmed the accuracy of the basic scientific link between anthropogenic emissions and disruption to the climate.

Next up was Sharon Eubanks, an attorney at Bordas & Bordas who previously led the U.S. government’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) case against Big Tobacco when she was an attorney at the Department of Justice. She described several parallels between the situation that preceded successful litigation by the federal government against tobacco companies and the present situation with respect to fossil fuel companies and climate change. She said that the analogy between the two “is strong” and that “there’s a blueprint for a RICO lawsuit that could be brought.” She concluded by clarifying: “It’s not just about suing them – though I love a great lawsuit.” The remedy is what matters.

Eubanks was answered by Thomas A. Lorenzen, an attorney at Crowell & Moring LLP who has led the coalition of petitioners challenging the Clean Power Plan before the D.C. Circuit and Supreme Court. Lorenzen began by observing that fossil fuels are unlike tobacco because all Americans pay for and benefit from their use. This, he argued, makes the case Eubanks posited inappropriate for a judicial remedy. “What is the class of victims? It’s everyone,” he said. And the wrongdoers? “It is, by the same token, everyone.” He characterized the question of the liability of fossil fuel firms as a political one—meaning that it would be subject to the political question doctrine sometimes used by courts to determine whether they are competent to decide a particular case. He also observed that the law was settled regarding EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, but that EPA having such authority displaced federal common law claims even if EPA did not exercise that authority vigorously.

Gerald Torres followed. He is a Cornell Law School professor whose recent work has focused on interactions between social movements, litigation, and legislative change. He opened by noting that litigation has historically served multiple purposes, including the posing of questions to Congress rather than answering them for good and all. He then discussed two examples of recently-filed climate cases. The plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States have sued the federal government, arguing that the public trust doctrine vests it with an obligation to protect natural resources that are owned in common and necessary for collective well-being. In California v. BP, by contrast, the plaintiffs are seeking money damages from fossil fuel companies to offset the costs required to adapt to, among other things, rising sea levels. After noting key issues highlighted by these cases, Torres observed—responding to Lorenzen—that “We are all at fault. But that doesn’t mean that no one is culpable. Just because we all benefit doesn’t mean that the people benefiting the most or [who] knew in advance shouldn’t be held liable.” On the other hand, he said, “Just because we know there’s a moral or ethical defect doesn’t mean there’s legal liability.”

In a question-and-answer period following the presentations, the panelists were asked to propose just remedies. Their responses included prohibiting further disinformation efforts, providing relief to communities damaged or displaced by climate impacts, and making investments in decarbonization efforts.

Justin Gundlach is a staff attorney at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. A version of this post was originally published on the Sabin Center’s Climate Law Blog

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Hal von Luebbert
Hal von Luebbert
5 years ago

You bet they can – and I’m about to do just that…

[Edited to remove profanity]