A lawyer representing coastal cities says he isn’t sure cases claiming that global warming is going to hurt the cities’ futures are winnable.
New York City and other coastal cities want to sue oil producers for their role in contributing to global warming.
Constant warnings that melting ice will cause sea levels to rise and threaten the cities are behind the lawsuits. But lawyers looking into the issue say the unsettled science behind global warming claims make the future of the lawsuits uncertain.
The lawsuits are being structured around successful litigation against big tobacco in the 1990s, claiming that oil companies should face penalties because they know their products harm the environment in the same way tobacco suppliers knew smoking causes health issues.
But even those who’d like to see the oil companies pay wonder whether the idea is flawed.
As Axios reported:
[New York Mayor Bill] De Blasio and others backing the lawsuits allege that oil and gas companies knew decades ago their products were causing climate change, but concealed that and funded advocacy groups opposing climate policies.
These claims about what they knew are largely based on investigations from 2015 in The Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News into ExxonMobil’s work on climate change over the past few decades, and to a lesser extent that of the American Petroleum Institute, whose members include the other companies being sued.
Exxon said its position was misrepresented and cherry-picked in the stories, which were both partly funded by groups opposed to Exxon. The publications have said the funding had no influence on their reporting.
“The extent of culpability with the degree of knowledge and what they decided to do has not had a chance to be fully aired in court,” said Michael Burger, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Burger says he’s skeptical the lawsuits will succeed, because of the political nature of the topic and because it’ll be legally difficult to trace precise amounts of causation and blame to the oil industry, let alone particular companies. Showing causation and blame was much more concrete with cigarette companies.
“I think these are very tough cases to win,” Burger said.