Local, county and state governments are suing oil companies over climate change

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Thanks to climate change, sea levels are rising and storm surges are becoming more costly and frequent. Since most American state and local governments are cash-strapped, cities and counties fear that they won’t be able to afford all the construction it will take to protect their people and property.

So some communities in California and Washington state, as well as New York City, are suing oil companies in a bid to force them to foot the bill. Recently, Rhode Island became the first state to take this step, when it sued 21 oil and gas companies “for knowingly contributing to climate change and the catastrophic consequences to the State and its residents, economy, eco-system, and infrastructure.”

Does it make sense to hold the industries responsible for global warming liable for the price – in dollars and cents – that everyone will have to pay to adapt to a changed climate?

As a scholar of environmental law, I believe climate liability cases like these have merit.

A public nuisance

The local governments asking the courts to intervene allege that higher sea levels brought about by climate change are a public nuisance. That may sound odd at first, but I believe that is fair to say. It is also the legal basis on which similar liability lawsuits have been filed before.

The sea level along California’s coasts may have risen about 8 inches in the past century. Scientists project that they may rise by as much as 55 inches by the end of this century.

That worst-case scenario would put nearly half a million people at risk of flooding by 2100, and threaten US$100 billion in property and infrastructure, including roadways, buildings, hazardous waste sites, power plants, parks and tourist destinations.

Superstorm Sandy caused over $60 billion in damage along the New Jersey and New York coasts. Several researchers have concluded that sea level rise and a warming ocean played a major role in making that storm so catastrophic.

The Trump administration has released a national climate change assessment, confirming that extreme weather events – storms on steroids – are becoming more frequent and intense.

If anything, characterizing these catastrophes as a public nuisance is an understatement.

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