San Mateo and Marin counties, as well as the city of Imperial Beach, sued 37 fossil fuel companies in California courts in July. The two counties and one city claim that the corporations, including Exxon and Shell, “knew or should have known” decades ago that their products have detrimental effects on the climate. Now the plaintiffs want the 37 “oil majors” to pay for adaptations to rising seas that communities in San Mateo, Marin, and Imperial Beach have been forced to make.
Legal action is becoming an increasingly popular tactic for US climate activists who want corporations to own up to their responsibility for creating climate change. Many also want corporations to pay for the problems a changing climate is causing all over the country. A few similar cases have failed in recent years, including one brought by Kivalina, Alaska, a small village which will soon disappear into the ocean. Residents sought in 2009 to make fossil fuel corporations foot the bill for relocating their village. The case failed when an appellate court ruled that federal action by the EPA “displaced” their claims.
New cases with some twists
The trio of California cases have a couple of factors working their favor, though. First, the plaintiffs are suing in state court, not federal court. This may help them avoid the ruling that climate-related action by federal agencies like the EPA displaces their claims. Also, researchers have made strides in their abilities to attribute carbon emissions to specific sources. Recently climate researcher Richard Heede found that just 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions. These findings could help courts assign blame and appropriate damages in legal cases.
The cases brought by San Mateo and Marin counties and the city of Imperial Beach make similar accusations to Juliana vs. United States, the lawsuit brought by 21 youth plaintiffs against the federal government and several major fossil fuel corporations in 2015. Plaintiffs in both cases say that fossil fuel corporations knew about and concealed the dangers of climate change for decades, failing to warn the public about the dangers their products pose. Both Juliana and the California cases draw on the tactics of those who fought the tobacco industry in court in the 1990s.
Experts say the new California cases could set wide-ranging precedents for financial liability in climate-related court cases.