For more than 50 years, the most powerful oil and gas companies knew exactly what they were doing. They knew that their activities were driving climate change, and they knew the catastrophic damage it would produce. Instead of taking steps to reduce climate risks, these companies ignored their own scientific reports on climate change, all in pursuit of higher profits and at the expense of the people and planet.

Today the visible effects of this gross negligence can be seen every day across the globe. From the new norm of massive super storms – destroying homes and coastlines – to record breaking heat waves. In our region of Virginia, Maryland and DC, the impact of climate change is particularly tremendous, due to our numerous miles of coastline which are threatened by sea level rise.

The question that remains, is who should bear the necessary costs to mitigate climate damages? The only ethical and economically viable answer is the biggest oil and gas companies who knew the effects their products and practices had on the climate, yet chose to ignore them. Holding these companies accountable has proven difficult. Big Oil and Gas companies have been strategic in their support of decision makers to ensure they would not be found guilty. Fortunately, there are some bold local and state leaders attempting to hold these companies accountable in court. As these cases move up through the legal system, we have may finally have accountability on the horizon.

Sign the petition: Make Big Polluters pay to address the climate crisis

#ExxonKnew

The Biggest Polluters Knew That They Were Causing Climate Change

As far back as 1968, Oil and Gas companies knew of climate change and the role they played in its cause. They knew that climate change would cause sea level rise and other environmental shifts that would damage the planet. [1] They continued to gather knowledge for decades regarding how their business practices contribute to a changing climate.

In a 1977 presentation, and again in a 1978 briefing, Exxon scientists warned the Exxon Corporation Management Committee that carbon dioxide concentrations were building in the Earth’s atmosphere at an increasing rate, and that the emissions were attributable to fossil fuels and contributing to global warming. The report stated:

There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels [and that] Man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical. [2]

The continued rejection by Exxon of their own scientific reports soon spread to other actors in the fossil fuel industry, creating a network of fraud and conspiracy among major fossil fuel companies.

In 1991, Shell produced a film called “Climate of Concern.” The film advises that:

while no two [climate change projection] scenarios fully agree [they] have each prompted the same serious warning. A warning endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the UN at the end of 1990.

The warning was of increasing frequency of abnormal weather and sea level rise of about one meter over the coming century. Shell specifically described the impacts of anthropogenic sea level rise on tropical islands:

barely afloat even now, [f]irst made uninhabitable and then obliterated beneath the waves. Wetland habitats destroyed by intruding salt. Coastal lowlands suffering pollution of precious groundwater.

They warned of “greenhouse refugees,” people who abandon homelands inundated by the sea, or displaced because of catastrophic changes to the environment. The video then concludes with a stark admonition:

Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that the wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.” [3]

While Shell and other oil and gas companies acknowledged that the global climate was warming, and that their products and practices were causing it, they refused to change their practices. Instead they sought to misinform the public.

Polluters knowingly misled the public

Big Oil and Gas companies continued to conduct research on how their products cause climate change. Eventually choosing to begin misinformation campaigns. They worked in stride with one another to create a network of conspiracy and fraud to mislead the public on climate change and its connection to the fossil fuel industry.

In 1996, Exxon released a publication called “Global Warming: Who’s Right? Facts about a debate that’s turned up more questions than answers.” In the publication’s preface, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond stated, inaccurately and against their own research:

taking drastic action immediately is unnecessary since many scientists agree there’s ample time to better understand the climate system.

The subsequent article then described the greenhouse gas effect as “unquestionably real and definitely a good thing,” while ignoring the severe consequences that would result from the influence of the increased carbon dioxide concentration on the climate. Instead, it characterized the greenhouse gas effect as, “what makes the earth’s atmosphere livable.”

This publication directly contradicted Exxon’s internal reports and peer-reviewed science. It ascribed the rise in global temperature since the late 19th century to “natural fluctuations that occur over long periods of time”, rather than to the anthropogenic emissions that Exxon and other scientists had already confirmed were responsible. [4]

In 1997, Mobil (purchased by Exxon in 1998) continued to mislead the public. Paying for a series of “advertorials,” in the New York Times. The ads discussed various aspects of the public discussion on climate change and sought to undermine the justifications for tackling greenhouse gas emissions by claiming it was unsettled science. The 1997 advertorial below argued that economic analysis of emissions restrictions was faulty and inconclusive and therefore a justification for delaying action on climate change. [5]

These misinformation campaigns led by Exxon and other Big Oil and Gas companies mislead the public to believe that anthropogenic climate change was not the scientific consensus. And it paid off for them. In 2007, a Yale University-Gallup poll found that while 71 percent of Americans believed global warming was happening, only 48 percent believed that there was scientific consensus on it. [6]

Costs of Climate Change

Impacts

The geographical areas most impacted by climate change are coastal cities, which face the challenge of adapting to rising sea levels, along with the increased occurrence of coastal storms and flooding. Because of this, Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. will be disproportionately impacted by climate change compared to landlocked states. It has been estimated that the three states will face costs nearing $59 billion just to protect themselves from rising seas.

Many cities and counties on the east coast are also prone to  flooding and coastal storms. Ellicott City, MD has experienced two “1 in 1,000 year” floods since 2016. Unfortunately, flooding will continue to happen, as will super-storms. Hurricane Sandy is just one example of how expensive and deadly super-storms can be, destroying over 650,000 homes, causing over $65 billion in damage, and killing more than 150 people. [7]

Beyond major destructive climate events, the day to day effects of climate change also have economic and health costs. The most deadly climate related events are not hurricanes or floods, they are heat waves. Just this summer, four people died during a heat wave in Maryland. Unfortunately, heat waves are becoming more and more common, and very few communities have the infrastructure to handle them.

Increased average daily temperature has also led to worsening air quality. According to the World Bank, air pollution is responsible for more than 7 million premature deaths each year, and direct costs to health could be as high as $4 billion per year by 2030. [8] While the catastrophic storms draw most of the attention for how climate change has impacted the world, the day to day effects will continue to be the more pervasive way that it impacts health.

7/20/2019

Adaptation

Over the next 20 years, the United States faces a $400 billion cost for adapting to climate change – just to protect our coastlines. The economic costs associated with climate change will have a major impact on people. As of now, the costs are solely placed on the American people. If we continue on this path, many communities will go bankrupt. Eight communities alone in Maryland and Virginia will have costs that exceed $500,000 per person  for coastal protection, which is only estimated at 16-20 percent of the total adaptation costs. [9] The country’s second largest community to face these consequences is Hampton Roads, Virginia. Hampton Roads is home to over 1.6 million people and frequently faces flooding, even on sunny days.

The solution

Tobacco Settlement as Precedent

Holding the Big Oil and Gas companies accountable for climate change would not be unprecedented. They knew their actions were causing climate change, yet they still intentionally misled the public. The strategy deployed is actually strikingly reminiscent of the one used by the tobacco industry – which eventually led to a settlement in 1998.

For decades, the tobacco industry wrote the playbook on deceiving the public while continuing to sell a product they knew was linked to cancer and other health concerns. The tobacco industry manufactured uncertainty on whether their products posed health risks. They manufactured this uncertainty by claiming that scientific reports linking tobacco products to cancer used flawed science. They even hired and promoted their own scientists to cherry-pick facts and mislead the public on research linking tobacco use to cancer. [10]

Once the tobacco industry’s deception came to light, states and private actors began to sue major tobacco companies for intentionally misleading the public. These suits resulted in a $206 billion settlement with 46 states for damages the tobacco industry caused through their misinformation campaign.

Major oil and gas companies followed this very same playbook. They knowingly deceived the public in the same manner as the tobacco industry, it would not be unprecedented for them to also be held responsible for climate damages caused by their deception. 

Attorneys General

In 2016, a group of 17 State Attorneys General formed a coalition that is considering bringing charges against Exxon for fraud after learning that Exxon had knowledge of their products impact on climate change, and then went on a misinformation campaign that contradicted their own internal reports. These Attorneys General have also called on the FBI to open up an investigation for fraud and conspiracy against the oil and gas companies. The Attorneys General alleged a potential conspiracy amongst the oil and gas companies to spread misinformation about climate change and their products contribution to climate change in an effort to increase short-term profits. [11] Because the Trump Justice Department has not opened up an investigation into this conspiracy, states and cities have decided to take action themselves and sue the biggest polluters for the damages that they have caused by knowingly misleading the public in regards to climate change.

Litigation

Many people believe that passing legislation that mandates that the biggest polluters pay their fair share for the cost of adapting to climate change is the best way to hold them accountable. However, this has been difficult to impose because the fossil fuel industry has successfully lobbied and bought politicians at all levels of government. This has caused some communities to get creative in finding a way to make sure that the biggest polluters will pay their share of the costs. Recently, cities and states have decided to sue the oil and gas companies in order to get them to pay for their impact on climate change.

Some cases have fared better than others in their mission. New York City recently had their case against the oil and gas companies dismissed after it was moved from state court to federal court, where judges have relied on federal legislation to determine how the oil and gas companies can be held accountable.

However, Baltimore just reached a major milestone and is now the first case which has withstood a motion for removal to federal court. Baltimore’s case will be heard in state court in the coming months. The complaint contends that the biggest oil and gas companies have single-handedly released about 15 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions globally, causing climate change and sea level rise, which they should be forced to pay for. Baltimore’s complaint alleges that the companies violated state laws including, public and private nuisance, trespass, failure to warn, design defect, and others. Moreover, the complaint requests that the court administer additional penalties against the companies because they knew that they were causing climate change as far back as 1968, but either ignored their own internal scientists, or spread misinformation about climate change that led to further pollution.

The state of Rhode Island has filed a similar suit as Baltimore, and just recently had their case remanded to state court after the oil and gas companies attempted to remove the case to federal court. The court in the Rhode Island case cited the court in the Baltimore case in its decision to remand the case back to state court. These two examples are showing a change in the way that court’s are looking at cases where communities sue oil and gas companies in order to force the companies to pay for their contribution to climate change.  

Take Action

If you believe that the oil and gas companies need to be held accountable for their contribution to climate change, please call your member of Congress and ask them to hold a hearing, and call for a federal investigation of Big Oil and Gas companies. If you live in a community that is not currently in legal proceedings with the oil and gas companies, write to your mayor, city council or State Attorney General and ask them to file suit. 

Sign the petition: Make Big Polluters pay to address the climate crisis

 

Key Articles

Resources

References

  1. Robinson, E. and Robbins, R.C. (1968). Sources, Abundance, and Fate of Gaseous Atmospheric Pollutants. Stanford Research Center.
  2. J.F. Black to F.G. Turpin. (June 6, 1978). The Greenhouse Effect, Exxon Research and Engineering Company. Memo. Climate Files, from http://www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1978-exxon-memo-on-greenhouse-effect-for-exxon-corporation-management-committee/
  3. Mommers, J. (Feb. 27, 2017). “Shell Made a Film About Climate Change in 1991 (Then Neglected To Heed Its Own Warnings)”. DE Correspondent, from https://thecorrespondent.com/6285/shell-made-a-film-about-climate-change-in-1991-then-neglected-to-heed-its-own-warning/692663565-875331f6
  4. Exxon Corp. (1996). “Global Warming: Who’s Right?” from http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2805542-Exxon-Global-Warming-Whos-Right.html
  5. Mobil. (Aug. 14, 1997). “When Facts Don’t Square with the Theory, Throw Out the Facts.” N.Y. Times, from https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/705550-mob-nyt-1997-aug-14whenfactsdontsquare.html
  6. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. (July 31, 2007). American Opinions on Global Warming: A Yale/Gallup/Clearvision Poll, from http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/american-opinions-on-global-warming
  7. Rice, D and Dastagir, A. (Oct. 29, 2013). “One Year After Sandy, 9 Devastating Facts”. USA Today, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/29/sandy-anniversary-facts-devastation/3305985/
  8. The World Bank (last updated April 2, 2019). Climate Change Overview, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/climatechange/overview
  9. High Tide Tax, The Center for Climate Integrity,
  10. Shulman S. et al. (2007). Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science. Union of Concerned Scientists, from https://ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf
  11. Hasemyer, D and Shankman, S. (Mar. 13, 2016). “Climate Fraud Investigation of Exxon Draws Attention of 17 Attorneys General”. Inside Climate News, from https://insideclimatenews.org/news/30032016/climate-change-fraud-investigation-exxon-eric-shneiderman-18-attorneys-general