Can a Company be Held Responsible for Climate Change? Maybe.
Rhode Island’s Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin filed a lawsuit in state court against fossil-fuel companies alleging that they knowingly aided in the detrimental climate change the area has experienced over the years. The lawsuit concerns the state’s 400-mile coastline and claims the area is under threat now that it will be subjected to more severe storms. The AG stated the changes have already caused Rhode Island to have to repair roads, bridges, and buildings, and officials are saying the companies should be held responsible.
“Big Oil knew for decades that greenhouse gas emissions from their operations and their products were having a significant and detrimental impact on the Earth’s climate,” Kilmartin said, and thus, they should be held responsible for their actions. “Instead of working to reduce that harm, these companies chose to conceal the dangers, undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation and engage in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever-increasing revenues in their pockets.”
The Rhode Island lawsuit is the first of its kind. No other state has sued fossil-fuel companies for climate change issues, according to Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. The closest case in history to this one is a lawsuit filed by a group of states against large power companies in an effort to force them to reduce emissions. However, the Supreme Court ultimately rules against the states.
Rhode Island is better positioned than the filers were at that time with its climate corruption lawsuit because it has initiated scientific studies on sea level rise and other impacts caused by the fossil-fuel companies, suggesting they should be held responsible. “The state has quantified the harms,” said Neil Kelly, deputy chief of the AG’s office. Because the case has been filed in state court, Rhode Island is not seeking to have other states join as plaintiffs in the fight.
The court paperwork names 21 defendants, including ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell. The National Association of Manufacturers called the lawsuit “frivolous,” adding, “Taxpayer resources should not be used for baseless lawsuits that are designed to enrich trial lawyers and grab headlines for politicians.” The Rhode Island Progressive Democrats dismissed the lawsuit as “a photo op” rather than “real action on climate change.”
The AG’s complaint details public assets and natural resources that have been damaged by or are under threat of becoming damaged from substantial modifications to the environment. The stretch of beach below the seawall which the lawsuit focused primarily on has eroded steadily over the last several years, likely due mainly to the coastal storms. Scientists have claimed this will only happen more frequently as temperatures grow warmer, so ordering fossil-fuel businesses to focus on changing current practices is key to slowing the wear and preserving the coastline.
“The only thing protecting this community and the busy public walkways and byways in front of the beach from being inundated from the ocean during a storm is this iconic wall,” Kilmartin said. “But it cannot hold back the rising sea levels and tides anticipated 20, 30, 50 years from now and the decades beyond.”