Climate Liability Lawsuits Could Help With Costs Of Adapting To A Hotter Earth

Sep 23, 2019
Originally published on September 23, 2019 4:09 pm
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Today in New York, world leaders attended a United Nations summit on climate change. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the meeting by challenging countries to make bold plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: We can do it. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is still possible, but it will require fundamental transformations in all aspects of society - how we grow food, use land, fuel our transport and power our economies.

CORNISH: All of that's put the brakes on greenhouse gas emissions. And beyond debating a plan, some are also beginning to wrestle with a big question, who is responsible for the effects of global warming? NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports that a growing number of lawsuits seek to answer that question.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: There are about a dozen significant lawsuits against oil companies in the U.S. right now. Michael Burger runs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

MICHAEL BURGER: All of these lawsuits have been filed in the last couple of years.

HERSHER: There's the one filed by the state of Rhode Island against 21 companies, including Exxon, BP, Shell and Chevron. There are the cases filed by the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and Baltimore and by San Miguel and Boulder counties in Colorado. And in each case, the city or state or county is suing one or more fossil fuel companies over the impacts of climate change.

BURGER: It's a wide range of impacts. Many of the lawsuits do focus on sea level rise and coastal storms, but it also includes drought, wildfire, flooding in Colorado.

HERSHER: The lawsuits allege that the oil companies should help pay for the cost of dealing with all of that now and in the future because, the cases allege, oil companies have known for a long time that burning fossil fuels causes global warming.

In an email to NPR, a spokesperson for the main oil industry trade group wrote in part that the industry is, quote, "actively addressing the complex global challenge of climate change through robust investments in technology, innovation, efficiency improvements and cleaner fuels."

Burger says the suits are somewhat similar to past cases brought against other industries.

BURGER: The comparison that most people are most familiar with is the comparison to tobacco.

HERSHER: The massive tobacco settlement hinged on similar legal arguments - that tobacco companies were partially responsible for the harm caused by cigarettes. Other industries have faced similar suits with a variety of outcomes - lead paint, asbestos, gun and opioid manufacturers. In fact, this is the second wave of climate change suits against oil companies. A previous set of cases in the early 2000s failed. Burger says something key has changed in the intervening years - the science.

BURGER: The ability to attribute particular impacts to climate change has vastly improved.

HERSHER: As climate models have gotten more sophisticated and as climate change itself has gotten more present in our daily lives, the connection between, say, destructive hurricanes and the warming Earth has gotten easier to argue. And climate-related lawsuits are showing up in other parts of the world, too. Cases in the Netherlands, France and India have all looked to the legal system to require companies and governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And then there's the argument that climate change is a human rights issue.

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MARIELLE TRIXIE BACASAN: Good morning everyone. My name is Marielle Trixie Bacasan. I'm a research nurse.

HERSHER: In November of last year, representatives from the human rights commission of the Philippines sat in a room in London and listened to people tell their stories of surviving the massive typhoons that hit that country, one after another, in recent years. Bacasan recounted how her family survived Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

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BACASAN: My grandmother, everyone was just praying. We were staying at the second floor of the hotel. So from where we were, we could see the water levels rising until the ground floor was fully submerged. You can see the water - the cars floating.

HERSHER: When the water went down, she and her family walked hours home through streets covered in debris and bodies. Bacasan explained how the storm wrecked the economy of her home city, cut off drinking water and killed thousands of people. She was one of the hundreds of people who testified before the human rights commission at multiple hearings around the world. The inquiry relied on the same underlying climate science as recent lawsuits have, research that connects fossil fuel companies to the effects of climate change, including stronger tropical storms. And although the commission is not itself a legal body, its final report later this year will still carry weight, explains Burger.

BURGER: The most important thing that could come out of it is a declaration of a violation of human rights. And, you know, that's a powerful thing. Nobody wants to be accused of being a human rights violator.

HERSHER: It's one piece of a nascent push to change the business models of the world's fossil fuel companies. And as climate science gets more sophisticated and climate change is evermore present in the lives of average people, that pressure is likely to keep increasing.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

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