The first major global warming court case has yet to take place, but various attempts at landmark cases that will make litigation history have been made in the last year or so. Now a new case featuring a community of Alaskan Eskimos could move into the spotlight. Not least because the lawyers involved are the same as those that broke the tobacco industry ten years ago.
The Eskimo lawsuit has everything going for it; a community of 410 Eskimos living on a remote island that’s under threat from warmer temperatures is suing 23 global energy and oil companies for damages. The companies include Exxon Mobil, BP, and Conoco Phillips, all three of which have operations in the near vicinity of the community which are literally undermining Eskimo soil. Other companies listed in the lawsuit are American Electric Power, Chevron, Duke Energy, Peabody Energy, and Southern Company.
The Eskimos say that the effects of the winter storms have become worse since water levels have risen due to higher temperatures. And they have proof; The US Army Corps of Engineers has officially confirmed that their town is exposed to risks which are due to climate change. The US Army asserted in an official report that the village will have to be relocated to maintain safety standards and that the relocation will amount to costs of $95 million.
The lawsuit was filed a few months ago in a San Francisco court. It differs from other global warming related court cases because it involves the accusation that 8 of the 23 companies have been misleading about their contributions to global warming. That was a central factor in the historic tobacco case which ended in the biggest ever settlement in civil law history.
Whether or not the energy companies have been misleading the general public about global warming is an issue that is very contestable. The Union of Concerned Scientists is particularly hot on the tracks of ExxonMobil, accusing the company literally of mimicking cigarette manufacturer tactics in covertly establishing front groups. This way, the company pays writers to exploit scientific uncertainties. According to other reports too, ExxonMobil funneled around $16 million to think tanks mandates of manipulating the public on global warming just so the companies can continue to pollute and contribute to global warming.
Stephan Faris, an expert and author of a book about global warming says that the case shows “this arguably eliminates the need for a judge to determine how much greenhouse-gas production – from refining fossil fuel and burning it to produce energy – is acceptable”. And Steve Berman, a lawyer involved in the case confirms this, saying “You’re not asking the court to evaluate the reasonableness of the conduct. You’re asking a court to evaluate if somebody conspired to lie.”
The 410 Inupiat Eskimos involved live on the island of Kivalina, around 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Their village counts around 80 inhabited houses on the tip of a six-mile barrier reef between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina and Wulik Rivers, which is on the Northwest coast of Alaska. Kivalina is called K-vill by its inhabitants who have lived there since time immemorial.
K-vill inhabitants will move to another location in the near future, says Janet Mitchell, the village’s administrator. She added that there’s some urgency because the wall around the town is beginning to disintegrate. “We need to relocate now before we lose lives,” Mitchell said.
The Kivalina website shows photos of the most recent climate related hazard in the town. A sinkhole has emerged in the K-vill drink water source, the Wulik River. The sink hole grows steadily and appears to be toxic, which is an instant problem because the K-vill inhabitants are used to drinking the Wulik water without purifying it. The K-ville inhabitants fill two tanks that hold 500,000 and 670,000 gallons of water every summer, but now the inhabitants will have to resume to drinking bottled water. The source of the pollution is most likely a mining company which has operations some 52 miles east of the town.
The pollution and other hardships end millennia of isolation and purity. The Kivalina town is a model of tranquillity and simplicity. Other than around 80 houses, there’s a registration office, a post office, an Episcopal church, a Friends church, a bingo hall, a clinic a school and a store as well as an electric power plant, a heavy equipment building, an airport, and an armory building. There are no hotels, restaurants, movie theatres, or recreation centers in K-vill. But nevertheless moving this simple settlement would still take over a year at the least, say officials and experts that reviewed the situation.