'Los responsables'

| 16th May 2019
Oil rig
Lawsuits across the world are taking big oil companies to task over climate injustice, and demanding that offenders put people before profits.


Energy companies have known about the devastating effects of their products on the Earth's climate for more than a century — but did nothing to address the problem.

Popular Mechanics and New Zealand's Rodney and Otamatea Times both publicly addressed the fact that burning coal affects the earth's atmosphere in 1912. The term "greenhouse gas" dates even further back, to 1896. 

But energy companies have done worse that nothing in addressing this century-old problem. Big Coal and Big Oil did their best to bury the truth, much like the disinformation campaign that Big Tobacco companies foisted upon the public. 

Profit margins

The year is now 2019. Humankind has 12 years to address climate breakdown before the changes to our planet become irreversible — and our species seals its fate.

The first question on the minds of most conservative and neoliberal politicians is "How are we going to pay for this?", especially as ideas like "zero-emission cities" and "green new deals" gain traction.

One idea that's gaining steam is to sue the companies responsible. To sue them into oblivion — because they didn't just know about their impact on our one and only planet — they buried the truth to protect their profit margins.

It's not a radical idea. We've already done this with tobacco companies. They, too, hid the truth. And they, too, are paying for the catastrophic damage they've done.

Corrective statements

The list of Big Tobacco's lies is long indeedTobacco companies falsely denied manipulating nicotine levels in their products in a way that deliberately fostered addition, and they lied about tobacco's many deleterious effects on public health — including the health of children born to mothers who smoke.

They falsely claimed that "low tar" and "lite" cigarettes are less harmful than "regular" cigarettes and they misled the public into thinking secondhand smoke is harmless.

The biggest tobacco companies spent decades fighting the truth, but 2017 marked a turning point for Big Tobacco.

Incredibly, this was the year we finally forced these companies to run "corrective statements" on television and in print media admitting the truth about the harmful nature of their products.

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco companies knew internally about the manifold dangers of smoking, including a higher risk of developing various cancersback in the 1950s— but it took us nearly 70 years to bring them to heel.

Legal precedent

Now, of course, they're pivoting and rebranding. Cigarettes are out, and vaping is in.

Nevertheless, these long years have produced results. Big Tobacco continues to drag its heels, but plaintiffs across the world — sometimes hundreds of thousands of them at a time— have brought lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers.

The long list of grievances includes wrongful death, negligent advertising, violation of consumer protections, negligent manufacturing, product liability and more.

The fight is far from over, but this growing body of legal precedent points the way forward when it comes to holding energy companies accountable for climate change.

Profits over people 

In the 1980s, Shell and Exxon produced internal studies which pointed unequivocally to the truth about anthropogenic climate change.

Their own scientists revealed that, by 2060, humankind would be producing greenhouse gases at double the pre-industrial level and would have pushed the planet to an inevitable 2°C rise in global average temperatures.

They did nothing.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell and others failed to adequately alert their shareholders and investors of the damage their products were doing, failed to publicly renounce climate misinformation, failed to plan for a future beyond fossil fuels, and for the most part have failed to come out in support of policies which would curb greenhouse gas emissions. They put profits over people.

Now, people want to sue them for their crimes.

Monetary damages

In 2009, glaciologists in Peru sounded an alarm. The amount of water held by lake Palcacocha had increased by more than 3,000 percent over the course of a few decades.

Climate breakdown had been weakening the glaciers above the lake for many years, causing more and more frequent avalanches and putting the surrounding cities in danger of being destroyed entirely.

Regional governments declared an official state of emergency and warned that just one major avalanche could wipe out 6,000 lives and an inhabited area as large as 154 city blocks.

Fearing for his home, Luciano Lliuya decided to find "los responsables" — and set his sights on a German energy company called RWE.

In a lawsuit against the company, Lliuya and his allies argue that the company contributes 0.5 percent of all emissions presently endangering the planet and are demanding commensurate monetary damages.

A shout

Lliuya describes his campaign as "a shout." It's a shot across the bow of a seemingly monolithic force. He'd never even left Peru before deciding to bring the fight to an energy company based in Germany. He is far from alone.

In the United States, since 2017, nine cities and counties, plus two entire states, have launched lawsuits of their own against oil companies alleging they placed human lives unnecessarily at risk to chase profits.

One group, called Our Children's Trust, supports young people across the United States and around the world in bringing lawsuits against various levels of government for causing climate change. The nonprofit supports the 21 youth plaintiffs in the landmark constitutional climate lawsuit against the federal government, Juliana v. United States, which has a hearing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on 4 June.

In Colorado, companies like Suncor Energy and ExxonMobile are being forced to defend themselves in court against arguments that their products worsened heat waves, wildfires, rising water levels and infestations by invasive species, and led to losses in agricultural profits and caused lasting damage to the state economy.

Rhode Island's attorney general, Peter Kilmartin, stood on top of a seawall in March 2019 to announce his own plans to take ExxonMobil, Chevron and others to court. 

Perilous moment

Kilmartin said: "Big oil knew for decades that greenhouse gas pollution from their operations and their products were having a significant and detrimental impact on the earth's climate. 

"Instead of working to reduce that harm, these companies chose to conceal the dangers, undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation, and engage in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products and ever-increasing revenues in their pockets."

This is a perilous moment in world history. The fate of these many pending lawsuits is anything but certain, and signs from the Supreme Court so far indicate they sympathize more with the current US administration than with the victims of climate injustice.

Still, all of this noise is an encouraging sign of things to come. As one Yale professor of environmental history put it: "This is only the beginning."

This Author

Kate Harveston is a vegan health and sustainability writer and the editor of women's wellness blog, So Well, So Woman.

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