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11 January 2018

9 beautifully crafted blows to the fossil-fuel industry from NYC’s new climate change lawsuit

"It is a myth that everyone is responsible for climate change and therefore that no one is responsible."

By India Bourke

The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, has just upped the stakes in the race to tackle the global climate crisis.

Under his instructions, the City of New York has filed a historic, multi-billion dollar lawsuit against the world’s five largest, publicly traded, fossil fuel producers – BP, Chevron, Conocophillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell- whom it claims are both “quantitatively and qualitatively” responsible for climate change’s vast existential threat.

The city is also looking for ways to divest about $5 billion from fossil-fuel linked companies. “We’re going to take our own actions to protect our own people,” the Mayor said in a speech on Wednesday.

It isn’t the first local government to do this: in California, numerous city and county governments are already suing the fossil fuel industry on similar grounds.

But New York’s status, as America’s financial capital and Trump’s home city, makes this suit iconic.

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Below are 9 extracts from the searingly direct and beautifully earnest new lawsuit: 

1. This lawsuit is based upon the fundamental principle that a corporation that makes a product causing severe harm when used exactly as intended should shoulder the costs of abating that harm.

2. Defendants continue to this day to produce, market, and sell massive amounts of fossil fuels and plan to continue doing so for decades into the future; their past and ongoing conduct causes and continually exacerbates global warming and all of its impacts, including hotter temperatures, longer and more severe heat waves, extreme precipitation events including heavy downpours, rising sea levels, and other severe and irreversible harms.

3. Defendants are collectively responsible, through their production, marketing, and sale of fossil fuels, for over 11 per cent of all the carbon and methane pollution from industrial sources that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

4. It is a myth that everyone is responsible for climate change and therefore that no one is responsible.

5. Defendants orchestrated a campaign of deception and denial regarding climate change. Defendants sponsored publicity campaigns using front groups and paid “scientific” mouthpieces—including some of the same scientists that the tobacco industry had used to downplay the risks of cigarettes—to discredit the mainstream scientific consensus on global warming and downplay the risks of climate change.

6. Defendants are not only quantitatively different from other contributors to climate change given their massive and dangerous levels of fossil fuel production over many years—they are also qualitatively different from other contributors to climate change because of their inhouse scientific resources, early knowledge of climate change impacts, commercial promotions of fossil fuels as beneficial despite their knowledge to the contrary, efforts to protect their fossilfuel market by downplaying the risks of climate change, and leadership roles in the API and other organizations that undertook a communications strategy for the fossil fuel industry.

7. Studies by the New York City Panel on Climate Change (“NPCC”), a body of more than a dozen independent leading climate and social scientists, demonstrate that global warming is already causing the City to suffer increased hot days, flooding of low-lying areas, increased shoreline erosion, and higher threats of catastrophic storm surge flooding even more severe than the flooding from Hurricane Sandy.

8. The City must take many more resiliency actions to more fully protect the public and City property and services as the climate marches toward an overheated state that, according to all scientific data, will be unprecedented in the history of human civilization.

9. This egregious state of affairs is no accident. Defendants’ actions in producing, marketing, and selling fossil fuels for decades and at ever more dangerous levels while knowing of the harm that was substantially certain to result constitutes an unlawful public and private nuisance and an illegal trespass upon City property.

A spokesperson for Chevron has already told the New York Times that it believes that the lawsuit will “do nothing to address the serious issue of climate change.”

But a suprisingly conciliatory statement from President Trump about the Paris Climate Agreement yesterday afternoon suggests that he may already be feeling somewhat cowed; “Frankly, it’s an agreement I have no problem with,” he is reported to have said, according to an unofficial transcript of the news conference in Norway. 

These lawyers’ carefully chosen and calmly delivered words may yet play the trump card in deciding the fossil fuel industry’s fate.

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