Q&A: California to take polluters to court over climate change

California filed a public nuisance lawsuit against Big Oil — ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and the American Petroleum Institute — on Sept. 15 for deceiving the public about fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change for the past 50 years. California is the latest and largest state to file such a lawsuit, joining at least 20 other lawsuits nationwide against Big Oil for similar damages. The Falconer takes a deeper look at the case with Joseph Kaatz, an attorney at the Energy Policy Initiative Center at the USD School of Law.

Can you take me through the history of legal action being used in relation to climate change?

“The public nuisance litigation that you’re hearing that California just filed … every state in the union has the ability to file. Now, California is taking public nuisance cases and using the model that was used in the ‘90s against tobacco companies to say, ‘You knew that your products were dangerous, you misled us, and these injuries are costing the public money because of the impacts.’”

Looking forward, what do you think is the ultimate goal of such litigation? What do you think the state is attempting to gain?

“Public nuisance litigation is really a way to force the entities that caused the impacts to pay for it or part of it. That’s what this is really about. When you have local governments, cities, counties and state governments using this type of litigation, they’re trying to claw money out of the companies to pay for the impacts that are happening and will happen [in the future].”

What do you think would be the legal process of connecting the actions of corporations to environmental degradation?

“One way of approaching it is [by addressing] how much greenhouse gas emissions they’re responsible for and whatever percentage they produced, refined and sold. I think there’s enough evidence to say, for example, that a storm wouldn’t have happened but for the change in the climate, or it wouldn’t have been as bad if not for these changes and impacts we’re seeing. I think there’s a lot of evidence to show that these emissions have changed the way the atmosphere works.

The case talks about the “deception” of Big Oil — how would you quantify this deception for evidence?

“There’s pretty clear evidence that [fossil fuel companies] have known for a very long time, and they’ve done nothing to warn the public; they’ve done nothing to change their business and the sale of these products have this impact on the entire world. Exxon put sensors on their tankers in the ‘70s, and they’ve had climate scientists inside of Exxon since the ‘50s. The sensors on their tankers verified that emissions were going up and theorized what the impacts would be and ever since then, they’ve been in a campaign to ensure that their product can be sold.”

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