Who Should Foot The Bill For Our Rising Seas?

Photo by Benjamin Kanter / Mayoral Photography Office

On Wednesday of last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio brought New York City into the fighting ring against the fossil fuel industry, announcing plans to sue five major oil companies for climate change damages as well as divest $5 billion of city pension funds from the fossil fuel industry. This announcement comes less than a month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo made promises to cease state investment in fossil fuels as well as create an advisory committee for state-wide decarbonization.

The lawsuit, which ropes in ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, accuses these companies of intentionally obscuring the consequences of their emissions, having been aware of climate change impacts for decades. Using new climate science, the lawsuit also claims that these companies together produced 11 percent of all greenhouse gases that have directly contributed to increased disaster and adaptation costs to the city.

Similar lawsuits have been filed by several communities in California last year, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Marin County. But New York’s Attorney General Dan Schneiderman is the first to bring this fight outside of California, and with the combination of improved climate science and evidence of company knowledge, these legal battles have a chance in the state courts.

New York’s announcements further cement Schneiderman as a leader in climate change policy, after he became the first New York elected official to support carbon pricing. Here in Massachusetts, Attorney General Maura Healey is yet to support such a plan, but she is currently in a tense fight with ExxonMobil. Following Schneiderman’s subpoena of ExxonMobil in 2016, Healey quickly joined his efforts to seek records of the company’s knowledge of climate change impacts and deliberate misinformation dating back to the 1970s.

Boston is a particularly vulnerable city to climate change impacts — Mayor Walsh’s Climate Vulnerability Assessment projects annual costs as high as $1.4 billion in direct damage and over $280 million in business disruption. Depending on how Boston responds to rising sea level, storm damages during the 21st century could cost the city up to $100 billion. Considering we are already experiencing costly damages from sea level rise, Attorney General Healey has grounds to pursue similar litigation in Massachusetts.

The costs of adaptation, resilience, and disaster relief programs will grow astronomically in the next few years. New York City is already undergoing significant infrastructure preparations for climate change to the tune of $20 billion, according to the mayor’s office. Around the world, climate change adaptation is projected to cost developing countries between $140 billion and $300 billion per year by 2030.

Astoundingly, these figures do not even factor in disaster relief costs — the US spent a record-high $306 billion on disaster relief in 2017 alone. As it currently stands, small businesses and local residents are positioned to receive the brunt of this impact. Litigation efforts can help shift some of these cost burdens onto companies that have earned trillions of dollars while knowingly harming the general public through the impacts of their products.

Residents stand over vehicles submerged in a parking structure in the financial district of Lower Manhattan, New York, Oct. 30, 2012. Photo: Reuters

The game changer in this fight is in the climate science, which allows litigators to put price tags on the actions of specific industries. Products sold by individual companies such as Chevron and ExxonMobil can be traced to measurable temperature and sea level increases, according to new studies. Emissions from 50 significant carbon producers are responsible for 16 percent of global temperature increases and 11 percent of global sea level rises. These polluters are responsible for an additional $2 billion in damages and disaster relief from Hurricane Sandy alone.

This kind of climate modeling is a necessity in ambitious litigation against big fossil fuel players such as ExxonMobil, which is currently seeking a Texas court order to depose 16 government officials in California for “potential claims of abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and violation of ExxonMobil’s civil rights”. In his announcement, Mayor de Blasio compared the lawsuit to previous battles with the tobacco industry, which took years to resolve. But these lawsuits also have symbolic value — Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls New York’s lawsuit a “classic example of impact litigation that’s designed to upend the existing order.”

New York’s case raises important questions for policy makers and environmental advocates –– who is responsible for the financial burden of climate change impacts? What can we accomplish if a portion of this burden was shifted to our greatest historical polluters? In many states, officials hesitate to pursue aggressive emission reduction and resiliency strategies in fear of shifting costs onto their constituents. Should lawsuits like New York’s succeed, state and local governments may unlock a newfound source of funds to achieve the climate change initiatives they desperately need.

Emission reduction programs like carbon pricing and cap-and-trade have raised funds for vital climate change initiatives like energy efficiency programs, renewable energy adoption, and energy bill assistance in a few short years, but this money may pale in comparison to what we can procure when oil companies are held accountable for decades of emissions. How much of the $306 billion spent on disaster relief last year are they responsible for?

JONAH KURMAN-FABER COMMUNICATIONS AND POLICY FELLOW Jonah is currently a Masters candidate of Sociology at Northeastern University, where he completed his Bachelors. He developed an appreciation for the environment at a young age, growing up on Lake Massapoag in Sharon, MA. He recently held multiple positions at Oxfam America as a grasstops and grassroots organizer, prior to which he served as an outreach coordinator for the Mass Save program. His academic expertise includes renewable energy policy, urban development, and gerrymandering. In his spare time, Jonah enjoys playing/coaching Ultimate Frisbee, traveling, and eating food he can’t afford.