NYC Will See the Fossil Fuel Industry in Court

by Naomi Ages

January 11, 2018

NYC has become the latest (and biggest) city yet to join the climate litigation movement, and it's only getting stronger.

New York City is taking 5 major oil companies to court to sue for damages.

San Francisco. Oakland. Santa Cruz. Marin County. San Mateo County. Imperial Beach. And now New York City. What do they all have in common? As of today, they’ve all filed cutting edge  lawsuits demanding that fossil fuel corporations pay for the costs of adapting to climate change. A thread that runs through each is one you’ve heard before – fossil fuel companies knew decades ago that climate change was real, knew that it was caused by human emissions, and knew that it could cause catastrophic damages – and then embarked on a campaign of deceit, denial, and doubt to slow global action to avoid the crisis we’re currently facing.

The costs of the climate crisis are, indeed, staggering. 2017 was a record-breaking year in many ways, particularly for climate-change-fueled extreme weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts the costs of hurricanes, wildfires, and other events at $306 billion – with $265 billion of that from hurricanes alone. Hurricanes that were made stronger by climate change.

Who pays for these costs?

Right now, it’s ultimately the taxpayers. It’s a heavy burden, and one that is expected to stay in the hundreds of billions of dollars, every year. However, cities and counties are looking for ways to save lives, and protect their citizens from the financial burden these catastrophes pose. They are increasingly turning to the courts in a growing wave of climate litigation, demanding justice for climate damages and adaptation costs. They recognize that the impacts of climate change are already here, and that they are devastating for people’s economic futures. The NYC lawsuit demands billions of dollars from 5 major oil and gas companies to pay for infrastructure improvements. The Santa Cruz suit estimates that damages from sea level rise attributed to climate change are up to $2.15 billion. Oakland estimates are at $38 billion.

Why are they asking fossil fuel companies for these damages?

Corporations that extracted, produced, and sold carbon products despite knowing the damage they could cause should pay their share of the costs to adapt to the climate crisis. The courts should deliver justice, and cities are asking them to do just that. It’s time for the narrative of ‘everyone is responsible for climate change, so everyone is equally responsible for fixing it’, to end. Fossil fuel corporations knew decades ago that this crisis was coming and we need to hold them to account.

Of course, those are just the monetary figures. It’s harder, if not impossible, to put a price on the human cost.

Widespread damage from Hurricane Sandy.

New York City’s suit is part of a global accountability movement. Late last year, a German court ruled that a Peruvian farmer’s suit against a German coal giant could go ahead, recognizing that a corporation could be held liable for its share of climate damages. In the Philippines, the Commission on Human Rights made a historical move by asserting its authority and jurisdiction to investigate human rights violations resulting from climate change in a national inquiry that involves 47 of the investor-owned major carbon producers.

The Greenpeace Thermal Airship A.E. Bates flew over the Dallas, Texas as part of a campaign to confront Exxon in its harmful endeavors of an oil state and oil diplomacy.

This year Greenpeace will be doubling down our efforts to hold climate polluters accountable. We are encouraging people and communities in the US and around the world to follow New York City’s lead and take the fossil fuel industry to court.

Naomi Ages

By Naomi Ages

Naomi Ages is the Climate Liability Project Lead at Greenpeace USA. She focuses on establishing legal, political, and financial accountability for climate change, and achieving justice for climate-impacted and vulnerable communities.

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