State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


NYC is Suing Five Major Oil Companies Over Climate Change

oil rig climate change lawsuit
The City of New York has filed a climate change lawsuit against five major oil producers. Photo: SMelindo via Flickr

On Wednesday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that his administration will sue five major fossil fuel companies. The city seeks damages for the costs of adapting to climate change.

The lawsuit claims the companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell—are responsible for 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution. The city also claims that the companies knew their products were harming the environment, tried to cover up the truth, and funded efforts to try to discredit climate change science.

As the planet heats up, New York City is expected to face rising seas, heavier precipitation, and rising temperatures. Adapting to these changes—including building coastal barriers and making homes more resilient—comes with a $20 billion price tag.

Could NYC Succeed?

New York City’s lawyers will face an uphill battle. Michael Burger, executive director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Fox Business that no city has ever successfully sued a fossil-fuel company over damages for climate change.

hurricane sandy climate change
Rising seas and warmer ocean temperatures make NYC more vulnerable to storms like Hurricane Sandy, shown here. The storm cost the city $19 billion in damages in 2012. Photo: Patrick McFall via Flickr

“There are significant legal obstacles that plaintiffs will have to get past,” he told the Village Voice. The challenges include proving causation and resolving whether federal statutes preempt lawsuits by states or municipalities, the Voice reports.

In 2015, 900 Dutch citizens successfully won a case against their government for taking insufficient action against climate change. A district court ruled that the Netherlands must cut its carbon emissions by at least 25 percent within five years. However, the ruling is now being appealed.

Bloomberg points out that the city hopes to build on successful lawsuits against the makers of asbestos, cigarettes, and lead paint. The argument is that carbon emissions represent an illegal threat to community welfare.

However, “[t]here isn’t anything you can point to and say, ‘This is exactly like that case,’” Burger told Bloomberg. “This is new.”

Oil Companies Respond

Several of the accused oil companies have asserted that lawsuits are not the answer to climate change.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and action,” Exxon Mobil spokesman Scott Silvestri told Bloomberg. “Lawsuits of this kind — filed by trial attorneys against an industry that provides products we all rely upon to power the economy and enable our domestic life — simply do not do that.”

“This lawsuit is factually and legally meritless, and will do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change,” Chevron spokesman Braden Reddall told the Washington Post in an email. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue that requires global engagement. Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory and economic priorities.”

In another case that has been raised against Exxon, the company has claimed it is the victim of abuse of process and conspiracy.

Part of a Larger Movement

With Wednesday’s announcement, New York City joins a larger wave of climate change litigation across the U.S. and the world.

Many state and local governments, seeing the federal government’s inaction on climate change, have decided to take on the issue themselves. A few, including Massachusetts and seven cities and counties in California, have filed lawsuits.

“Any individual judgment is not going to be that big a deal,” Burger told Inside Climate News. “But if you’re talking about cases being filed across 10 or 15 different states, and talking about forcing the industry to pay for adaptation costs across the country, it becomes a much different ball game.”

And even if these cases ultimately don’t succeed in court, they could have other effects, said Burger, such as pressuring the industry to address climate change.

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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

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