Last week, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest international oil and gas companies, for intentionally deceiving the public about the connection between fossil fuels and the climate crisis.
“ExxonMobil sold oil and gas, but it also sold lies about climate science. ExxonMobil knew that continuing to burn fossil fuels would have a significant impact on the environment, public health, and our economy. Yet it chose to deceive the public. No more,” said Tong in a press release.
Connecticut is not the first state to sue fossil fuel industries for intentional misinformation campaigns. Over the past few years, dozens of state and local governments have sued ExxonMobil and other large fossil fuel corporations, and that number is only growing exponentially. Tong’s lawsuit is the fourth this September to sue a large oil corporation after the state of Delaware, the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and the city of Hoboken, New Jersey did so earlier this month.
The wave of allegations against fossil fuel companies comes during a pressing moment, when the impacts of climate change are worse than ever before. In the South and on the East Coast, ravaging hurricanes are causing massive destruction, while an unprecedented amount of wildfires in the West are forcing thousands to flee their homes.
It also comes on the cusp of a major presidential race, where the differences between candidate platforms on climate change are stark. When Delaware, Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s home state, announced their lawsuit, he said, “They knowingly wreaked havoc and damage on our climate. Damage that is plain for everyone to see but the President.” Biden has also announced as a part of his climate plan that he will “hold oil executives accountable,” while Republican candidate Donald Trump remains one of the largest political supporters of the fossil fuel industry.
For years, corporations like ExxonMobil have known about the consequences of climate change, and have knowingly contributed to worsening this crisis while misinforming the public about their actions. These lawsuits are one step further towards holding fossil fuel industries accountable for the extreme damage they have caused and continue to perpetrate.
How did we get here?
In the 1970s and ‘80s, climate science was just beginning to emerge. Leading scientists were beginning to prove not only that humans contribute to climate change, but that there would soon be devastating consequences if swift actions were not taken to halt warming global temperatures.
ExxonMobil was at the forefront of this science. In 1977, a senior Exxon scientist, James F. Black, gave a presentation to corporate leaders, depicting that carbon dioxide emissions released from burning fossil fuels had the potential to negatively impact humankind. This led the corporation to quickly invest in research and development techniques, and a team of scientists for the company spent the next decade examining the effects that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have. What they found was worse than what Black had predicted — that increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air would have dire consequences much earlier than originally expected.
But suddenly, in the late 1980’s, Exxon stopped funding this research and began to openly deny that climate change was happening. The calculation had been made by the company’s executives — ExxonMobil could profit far greater, in the short term, by denying climate science and misinforming the public about its actions. The corporation began to lobby governmental bodies to block any action to limit carbon emissions, and spent billions in media propaganda that was misinformative about the true cost of using fossil fuels.
ExxonMobil also partnered with other climate denial groups and large fossil fuel corporations to halt any attempts to make impactful environmental change. Most prominently, ExxonMobil helped to create the Global Climate Coalition, which funneled billions of dollars into oppositional campaigns against climate action, and has been found to “carefully pick apart established climate science, emphasize uncertainty, and advocate for regulatory inaction to the public, media, lawmakers, and government representatives.”
In 1997, when nations across the globe met in Kyoto to discuss an international response to climate change, ExxonMobil’s CEO Lee Raymond advocated for little to no regulations. Despite being entirely aware that scientists were certain on the effects of climate change, he told diplomats at the conference, “Before we make choices about global climate policies, we need an open debate on the science […] It is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or 20 years from now.”
The Kyoto Protocol, the agreement that was decided upon internationally at this conference, was never ratified by the United States, and failed to make a significant impact on climate change. Many scholars link ExxonMobil’s aggressive lobbying efforts to be one of the main reasons why the protocol failed, pushing back progress on international climate policy.
Decades of intentional public misinformation
ExxonMobil continued to manipulate information and deny the science surrounding climate change after Kyoto, using many of the same tactics the tobacco industry has used to misinform customers surrounding the link between smoking and cancer.
One advertisement that Exxon published in 2000, called “Unsettled Science,” uses a study around decreasing temperatures in the Sargasso Sea to justify uncertainty around whether or not humans cause climate change. However, the author of the report was uninformed about its use, and when asked about the ad, he stated, “I believe ExxonMobil has been misleading in its use of the Sargasso Sea data. There’s really no way these results bear on the question of human-induced climate warming.”
ExxonMobil historically has manipulated the use of the word “uncertainty,” a term commonly used in science reports to note that numbers or predictions may not be exact. Science is constantly changing, and therefore, scientists often note in their reports that there is a certain level of “uncertainty.” There is overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and that humans are causing it. However, there may be some “uncertainty” around when certain effects will occur, or to exactly what tenth of a degree the oceans are warming at, and as technology improves, these specifics may alter. ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel industries manipulate this language to convince the public that use of the word “uncertain” means that scientists are “uncertain” about human’s effect on climate change, when this is simply not true.
Eventually, around 2005, ExxonMobil began to publicly acknowledge the threat of climate change as it became internationally unacceptable for them not to address the issue. But despite the verbal and written commitments, the corporation continues to funnel billions of dollars into organizations and towards political candidates who deny the existence of climate change.
Legal actions to hold ExxonMobil accountable
In 2015, investigative journalists from InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times, and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism reported on ExxonMobil’s purposeful public misinformation campaigns regarding the dangers of climate change, reviewing a wide variety of the corporation’s documents and interviewing dozens of employees in order to do so. This spurred a series of legal actions against ExxonMobil and other similar big oil and gas corporations.
New York, California, and Massachusetts attorneys general were the first to open investigations into ExxonMobil after the journalists exposed the company’s purposeful denialism, with many Congressional Representatives calling for the Department of Justice to conduct their own investigation. Since then, lawsuits have flooded in from over a dozen states and municipalities alike, with Connecticut’s being the most recent.
Progress has certainly been difficult. ExxonMobil is one of the most established and wealthiest international corporations in the world, and holding them accountable for their actions will not be easy, especially as they continue to vehemently deny any allegations of lying to the public.
In 2019, a New York state judge ruled in favor of ExxonMobil, stating that no shareholder fraud had taken place. The judge did qualify his decision, and wrote in his ruling that, “Nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve Exxon Mobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change in the production of its fossil fuel products.” However, in New York, ExxonMobil was sued only for shareholder fraud — many other cases also include consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and false advertising allegations, all of which are similar legal battles to those successfully fought against the tobacco industry.
And in many other states and cities, cases against the oil giant are still pending. While progress has been slow, there have been some wins. After Attorney General Maura Healy of Massachusetts was counter-sued by ExxonMobil, the US Supreme Court ruled in her favor, and now Exxon is unable to withhold documents from the investigation.
“Corporations are responsible for their statements and can be held accountable. A corporation can’t be having knowledge something is harmful, and in public arguing the opposite. It’s basic consumer fraud; unfair advertising,” said Roger Reynolds, the senior legal counsel at Save the Sound.
In Connecticut, Attorney General Tong is optimistic that his lawsuit will be strong. “Our job is to hold wrong-doers accountable and to hold them to account to pay for the social damages that they cause,” he told the Connecticut Mirror. “I feel very good about the prospects for our involvement in some of these climate-related suits and in holding big oil accountable for their role in climate change and for remediating climate change.”
What does this mean for the future of fossil fuels?
Ultimately, the goal of these lawsuits is not only to hold large polluting industries accountable for their actions, but also to ensure that they help to finance the transition to a renewable energy economy.
In Minnesota, where a similar lawsuit has been filed, this is called out directly. “The State seeks to ensure that the parties who have profited from avoiding the consequences and costs of dealing with global warming and its physical, environmental, social, and economic consequences, bear the costs of those impacts, rather than Minnesota taxpayers, residents, or broader segments of the public,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit filed by Charleston, South Carolina also addresses the cost of mitigating the effects of the climate crisis, which have been massive in a city where severe flooding has increased dramatically over the past few decades. The suit calls for ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and British Petroleum to help finance these costs. “As a direct and proximate consequence of Defendants wrongful conduct described in this complaint, the environment in and around Charleston is changing, with devastating adverse impacts on the City and its residents,” The City writes.
Making polluters pay
Polluting industries that have profited massively off of exploiting the environment for decades should help to fund the transition away from fossil fuel reliance, especially because their misinformation campaigns delayed action that could have prevented some of the consequences of climate change that we are dealing with now.
One mechanism that has historically been proposed as a way to ensure polluters help finance the transition to a renewable energy economy, is a price on carbon pollution. By placing a fee on the carbon that large polluting industries emit, state governments can build capital to invest in important, equitable renewable energy projects.
In Connecticut, some advocates view the ExxonMobil lawsuit as possible momentum for a price on carbon emissions in the state. Working in tandem, the lawsuit and a price on carbon have the potential to ensure polluting industries pay for the cost of emitting fossil fuels.
“For years, industry sectors such as extractives and oil and gas have benefited financially from being able to externalize the environmental and social costs of carbon emissions all while attempting to deceive the public. It’s time for Connecticut to think courageously and act boldly to adopt an economy-wide price on carbon,” Heather Burns, CEO of CT Sustainable Business Council, told Climate XChange.
“There are plenty of companies out there trying to be a part of the solution to climate change. It’s high time we fine the polluters, use the funds for remediation and incentivize companies that are willing to address the climate crisis head-on. We are out of time.”
As state and local governments work quickly to mitigate worsening climate impacts, it is essential that large polluting corporations which have been the primary perpetrators of environmental degradation for decades are part of the process, and help to finance some of the needed mitigation and adaptation efforts. Connecticut’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil, and the political momentum that it’s encouraging, is the next step towards doing so.