Can We Make Coal And Oil Companies Liable For Climate Change Effects?

Remember when we held tobacco companies who made millions off of an addictive product liable for the damage that product caused? Yeah, well, some people are trying to apply the same kind of liability to coal and oil companies. Although the debate rages on, there’s no secret: burning coal and oil releases carbon into our atmosphere. Carbon is a greenhouse gas. That means it heats our planet. The more of it up in the sky, the warmer it is down here on the ground.

But lawsuits that would hold coal and oil accountable for the disastrous effects of man-made climate change (in part, at least) have so far been unsuccessful.

They came to a head when Exxon Mobil recently won a lawsuit lodged by New York State’s attorney general, who wanted someone to take responsibility for the damage that had been done. After all, that damage will last for centuries — or perhaps, even, forever.

But don’t think that it’s over just because the one lawsuit failed.

Students in Florida have sued state government officials for doing little to nothing to combat the growing effects of climate change. One suit went down the tubes, but another is showing signs of momentum before heading to court. Part of the reason is publicity. Public outcry can change a judge’s mind quite fast. 

Relatively unheard of in the 80s and 90s, climate cases multiplied dramatically in 2007 and then again a decade later in 2017. We expect they will continue to multiply in the future as more and more people begin to understand the real consequences of releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere like it would never make a difference.

Director of the Rockefeller Family Fund Lee Wasserman said, “Through these cases, we will learn with great detail what the industry knew and when they knew it, and what they did to deceive the public about that knowledge. They are now leaving the public with an enormous bill.”

And in fact that might make all the difference: We already know that many big coal and oil companies did their own internal studies on the effects of releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Those studies came to the same conclusion as other climate scientists have in the decades since, i.e. that releasing greater amounts of carbon will result in catastrophic weather events, sea rise, and mass extinctions on a greater scale than anytime in the history of the world.

And these cases will eventually change the way insurance companies sell, say, flood or fire coverage. For example, you can’t find flood insurance down in Key West because everyone knows that it’ll be underwater sooner or later — and probably sooner. And is that fair? Courts will soon have their say.