Suing Big Oil
The Next Millennial Trend Is Suing Big Oil for Destructive Climate Change
Over five years later, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is still being felt in New York City. The Build It Back program, created to help homeowners in flood zones reassemble their properties, continues to keep plenty of families waiting for relief. The coming L train shutdown in 2019, which VICE has been covering extensively, is necessary chiefly because of the damages the superstorm wrought on the Canarsie Tube underground. So far, the federal government has allocated upwards of $20 billion in recovery money, but the final price tag will likely rise as New York continues to rebuild and fortify its coastline.
But after a summer where the subway became a national spectacle of dysfunction and misery, the city is asking someone else to pay up: oil companies.
On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city, in addition to (potentially) divesting $5 billion in pension funds, was taking take five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell—to court. NYC is seeking damages that, de Blasio and his fellow city officials claim, the oil giants caused by directly contributing to climate change. The city is also accusing the companies of privately being aware of the effects burning fossil fuels has on our planet for years while denying them in public. (Several of the defendants companies’ spokespersons have since touted their own efforts to address climate change, while either insisting lawsuits are not the answer and/or calling this specific one meritless.)
“As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient,” de Blasio said in a statement.
With the lawsuit, New York joins a growing number of cities whose leaders hope to use the court system to help pay costs imposed by extreme weather events. This is an especially appealing option at a time when key members of the Trump administration in Washington are denying climate science outright, pulling out of global accords, and backing away from enforcement of existing regulations. The charge regained traction last year, after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria left Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico with humanitarian crises worth billions of dollars in damages—and, some estimates suggest, over 1,000 lives.
The unfolding saga mirrors the successful lawsuits brought against Big Tobacco in the 1990s, and the more recent complaints against pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis. But the question of whether or not it can actually enact profound change for a much more existential issue—one involving multi-billion dollar corporations active across the globe—is up for debate. VICE reached out to Jean Eggen, a distinguished professor emerita of law at Widener University Delaware Law School and a member of its Global Environmental and Natural Resources Law Institute. She’s also an expert on product liability and has written about tobacco litigation in the past.
Here’s what she had to say.