Cape May, New Jersey
Fossil fuel companies may be forced to pay the full cost of doing business as mounting lawsuits seek to hold the industry accountable for billions of dollars’ worth of damages done by the climate crisis. New Jersey is the most recent in a slew of states and local governments to ask the courts for compensation — citing over half a century of lies used to hide the consequences of releasing greenhouse gases en masse from the public in order to bolster profits. The Garden State is also asking for an injunction to block the industry from continuing to spread misinformation. Defendants include the American Petroleum Institute as well as Chevron, BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.
“Since at least the 1950s, its own scientists have consistently concluded that fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution that can have catastrophic consequences for the planet and its people. The industry took these internal scientific findings seriously, investing heavily to protect its own assets and infrastructure from rising seas, stronger storms, and other climate change impacts,” the lawsuit reads. “But rather than warn consumers and the public, fossil fuel companies and their surrogates mounted a disinformation campaign to discredit the scientific consensus on climate change; create doubt in the minds of consumers, the media, teachers, policymakers, and the public about the climate change impacts of burning fossil fuels; and delay the energy economy’s transition to a lower-carbon future.”
According to the suit, those impacts are being felt now, and New Jersey is experiencing more than its share at the forefront. The state has sustained massive hurricane damage in recent years, with 30 lives lost to Hurricane Ida and billions spent to fix the damage done by Hurricane Sandy and reinforce the coastline in anticipation of future climate catastrophes. Additionally, the state’s urban centers and coastal communities remain at risk of flooding, with low-income communities in Atlantic City and Newark in particular danger.
The industry isn’t new to lawsuits from New Jersey or anywhere else. Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Massachusetts and Minnesota have all filed suit against the fossil fuel industry as well, as has Washington D.C. The city of Hoboken, New Jersey — which has been particularly hard hit by hurricanes and tropical storms over the past decade — sued in 2020. The city also pointed to the industry’s orchestrated campaign to deceive the public on what it already knew to be true about climate change from its own scientific studies: “Defendants spent millions of dollars on advertisements that cast doubt on climate science; funded scientifically unsound research to do the same; and created expansive networks of front groups to ‘reposition global warming as theory, not fact’.”
While these tactics no doubt got us where we are today, industry representatives naturally argue that holding the oil companies to task in a court of law is frivolous and a waste of time and money. In regards to the lawsuit from the city of Hoboken, a representative from Shell said on Frontline, “We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government, supported by action from all business sectors, including ours, and from society, is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress.”
While the irony in the statement is palatable considering the industry’s blatant crusade against cooperation and solutions, legal action may just be humanity’s best hope for bringing the climate crisis into check. Looking back on consumer protection lawsuits that changed the face of advertising and product safety, the courtroom certainly provides a legitimate path to forcing corporate responsibility.
But while states like New Jersey have access to funds and legal teams that may be able to help with recouping damages, the commonwealth of Puerto Rico is often left in the dark thanks to repeated thrashings from worsening climate crisis-fed storms and hurricanes. Additionally, the island is at risk from rising seas and eroding shorelines, as are numerous islands across the globe — many of which could disappear altogether. Likewise, the countries that have been hurt the most by climate change also have the fewest resources to pursue legal challenges. That’s not to say they aren’t fighting anyway — for example, the commonwealth recently brought a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty before the U.N. So although states like New Jersey may need to get the judicial ball rolling, the future of the climate could very well be decided in the courtroom.
Image credit: Michael Kaucher via Pixabay
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.