Three Californian communities have launched legal action against some of the world’s biggest oil, gas and coal companies, seeking compensation for the current and future costs of adapting to sea level rises linked to climate change.
San Mateo and Marin Counties, coastal communities in northern California, and Imperial Beach, a city in San Diego County, have filed complaints against 37 “carbon majors”, including Shell, Chevron, Statoil, Exxon and Total.
They claim greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel companies’ activities over the last 50 years have locked in substantial sea level rises, which will cause billions of dollars’ worth of damage to properties and businesses, as well as endangering lives.
According to the complaint, the defendants “have known for nearly 50 years years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products has a significant impact on the Earth’s climate and sea levels”. Rather than working to reduce impacts, the complaint claims the companies engaged in a “co-ordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their knowledge of these threats”.
A spokeswoman for Shell said “we believe climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers, not by the courts.” A spokesman for Statoil said this lawsuit was not the first against the industry and that “previous cases have been dismissed as [providing energy while meeting climate commitments] is a political, not a judicial, issue”.
Exxon and Chevron declined to comment specifically on the litigation. BP and Total did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Climate change litigation
“This an unprecedented moment for climate change litigation,” says Sophie Marjanac of campaigning lawyers Client Earth, which is monitoring the case.
Coastal California is already experiencing the effects of rising sea levels, says Deborah Halberstadt, executive director of the state’s Ocean Protection Council which recently released a study (pdf) about the threat of rising seas. “The rate of ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could rapidly accelerate, leading to extreme sea-level rise, […] with potentially catastrophic impacts for California,” she says.
Serge Dedina, the mayor of Imperial Beach, a low income coastal community in San Diego County, says that up to 30% of the city could be affected by climate change. “As the lowest-income, highest poverty-rate city in San Diego County, we have no capacity to pay for the extensive adaptation measures.”
It’s a similar story for Marin County. Within 15 years, says county supervisor Kate Sears, flooding could affect tens of thousands of residents and cause upwards of $15.5bn (£11.9bn) in property damage. “This lawsuit is intended to shift those costs back where they belong – on the fossil fuel companies,” she says.
“We are at the point of no return in fighting climate change,” says San Mateo supervisor Dave Pine, “and if we don’t reduce emissions there will be catastrophic impacts.” Potential property damage in the county is estimated to be in the region of $39bn, with sea level rises set to affect more than 100,000 residents (pdf).
This isn’t the first time fossil fuel companies have found themselves facing legal action over climate change. Kivalina – an Alaskan barrier island community of fewer than 400 people – filed a lawsuit in 2008 against oil companies including BP and Chevron demanding up to $400m for relocating their village in the face of rising sea levels. They were ultimately unsuccessful, with their case dismissed on the basis that it was a political question, not one for the courts.
“This claim has a better chance,” says Marjanac, “we have better climate science now.” She also believes the “vacuum in the US at a federal level” when it comes to climate change, may make the state court more willing to step in.
She does, however, acknowledge there are significant hurdles to success. These include the “utility argument”: that companies are providing energy to the world, something that is demanded and sanctioned.