Suing Big Oil for Climate Change

You can sue someone for damaging your car, your house or your health.

Why not your climate?

That’s the weighty question being asked by a small community in Alaska in a court case filed today in San Francisco against a raft of major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil.

The Village of Kivalina, and the local Inuit band, filed their claim on the basis that Exxonmobil, eight other oil companies, fourteen power companies and one coal company have all contributed to radical and expensive changes to the local climate caused by global warming.

Kivalina is a native community of less than 400 people on an island in the Bearing Sea that depends on salmon fishing and hunting. The settlement has been protected for generations by sea ice that shields the area from powerful winter storms. Less ice due to a rapidly changing climate has greatly increased the rate of erosion and storm damage, forcing the community to consider relocating at a cost of more than $400 million.

"We are seeing accelerated erosion because of the loss of sea ice," City Administrator Janet Mitchell said in a statement. "We normally have ice starting in October, but now we have open water even into December so our island is not protected from the storms."

If this novel lawsuit proves successful it could spell big trouble for the fossil fuel industry. For decades, Big Oil has been using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon dioxide. But as they say, there’s no free lunch.

Tort lawyers are a uniquely vicious species, especially against industries with deep pockets that are selling dangerous products, and lying about it.

For instance, the tobacco industry deceived the public, government and media for decades about the dangerous side effects of using their product. Sound familiar? A series of public and private lawsuits against Big Tobacco have so far extracted about $10 billion annually in the US alone in settlements to pay for burdens of smoking on the health care system.

The difference is that Big Oil makes Big Tobacco look like a corner store. The fossil fuel industry worldwide is worth about $8 trillion annually. That is five to six times the size of the next biggest industrial sector – cars. Corporate pockets don’t get any deeper than that.

Potential legal settlements in future climate change lawsuits might be astronomically larger than comparatively puny tobacco settlements. The former chief economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern estimates that unabated climate change could shrink the global economy by up 20%. That works out to about $12 trillion each year. Those are the kind of numbers that make any tort lawyer lick their chops.

Keep an eye on this small but important lawsuit hailing from a tiny village in Alaska. Things could get interesting.

This piece was published on DeSmog Blog on Feb. 28, 2008

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