Is California’s Climate Lawsuit against Big Oil a Gamechanger?

crude oil field

The depths of depravity into which unvarnished capitalism can plunge mortal souls is incalculable. It should come as no surprise then that oil company executives and the officials of petrostates like Saudi Arabia have so assiduously lied to us about the catastrophic effects of climate change. After all, the executives of tobacco firms have been perfectly content to sell consumers a product long known and virtually guaranteed to cut their lives short, while lying about its harmful effects for decades. Likewise, the courts have now made the pharmaceutical industry’s responsibility for and grasp of the opioid crisis that killed half a million people all too clear.

In both instances, state attorneys-general played an important role in seeking redress. Now, Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general, has filed a 135-page lawsuit against five major oil companies — ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP — which could prove an inflection point in the battle against human-caused climate change.

On announcing the lawsuit, Bonta said, “Oil and gas companies have privately known the truth for decades — that the burning of fossil fuels leads to climate change — but have fed us lies and mistruths to further their record-breaking profits at the expense of our environment. Enough is enough.”

Born in the Philippines to an American father and a Filipina mother, Bonta spent his early years near Keene, California, where the United Farm Workers had established its headquarters. There, both his father Warren and his mother Cynthia helped organize Filipino-American and Mexican-American laborers. Bonta went on to get a Yale law degree and ultimately entered politics, being elected to the California State Assembly in 2012.

His background clearly impressed upon him the special vulnerability of working-class groups to climate change. “We will meet the moment and fight tirelessly on behalf of all Californians,” he pledged, “in particular those who live in environmental justice communities.”  As he explained in a footnote in his brief for that lawsuit: “’Frontline communities’ are those that are and will continue to be disproportionately impacted by climate change. In many cases, the most harmed are the same communities that have historically experienced racial, social, health, and economic inequities.”

The destructive impact of human-caused climate change on California has, in fact, unfolded before our eyes. Eleven of the 20 largest California wildfires have taken place since 2018. Unusually frequent, wide-ranging, and ever fiercer wildfires have even chased from their homes some of the Golden State’s most famous celebrities, leaving behind just glowing cinders. The now-seemingly annual rampages of those increasingly massive conflagrations can cause us to forget how remarkable the damage has been in these years.

In 2018, pop singer Miley Cyrus announced that the Malibu home she shared with her then-fiancé Chris Hemsworth had been devoured by flames, writing on social media, “Completely devastated by the fires affecting my community. I am one of the lucky ones. My animals and LOVE OF MY LIFE made it out safely & that’s all that matters right now. My house no longer stands but the memories shared with family & friends stand strong . . . I love you more than ever, Miley.”  That year, Orlando Bloom, Bella Hadid, Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, and Gerard Butler suffered similar losses.

Well-heeled celebrities, however, have the resources to get through such crises. Farm laborers who must harvest crops while breathing soot-filled air risk adverse health effects, including respiratory and heart disease. Others have lost their jobs and incomes entirely when wildfires encroached on fields and orchards. Not getting paychecks thanks to raging fires at their worksites can, in turn, cause such workers to miss mortgage payments and lose their homes. And sometimes, of course, their own homes, like those of the stars, have been torched.

Connecting the Dots

In 2021, wildfires almost entirely razed the town of Paradise, California. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg visited the aftermath. On hearing one man’s devastating account of how he and his family barely escaped their fiery, collapsing home, she said, “We see all of these things repeating themselves over and over again. People die, and people suffer from it. But we completely fail to connect the dots.”

Her evident frustration at the time should be considered significantly more consequential than it might seem. A team of Norwegian researchers has found that, of all the emotions provoked by human-caused climate change, the one most associated with activism against it is anger. Anger at politicians or CEOs who have played key roles in enabling the phenomenon that causes such destruction animates many climate protesters. As they suggested, Thunberg’s vivid speeches are but one example of the righteous anger provoked by those who could have but haven’t moved to mitigate the effects of global warming.

For his part, Attorney General Bonta isn’t in any doubt about where to lay the blame. As he put it, “With our lawsuit, California becomes the largest geographic area and the largest economy to take these giant oil companies to court. From extreme heat to drought and water shortages, the climate crisis they have caused is undeniable. It is time they pay to abate the harm they have caused.” By focusing on five major oil companies, he and California Governor Gavin Newsom have given the state’s environmentalists a target for their anger.

Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are already pursuing similar legal actions and small wonder why. When it comes to California, for instance, scientists have recorded a fivefold increase in the summer burned areas in forests stretching from the middle of the state north during the past two and a half decades. And that devastatingly large burn area is anything but just the result of cyclical droughts. In fact, researchers demonstrated this summer that almost all of it has been caused by the human production of carbon dioxide through the burning of gasoline, natural gas, and coal. Worse yet, their projections suggest that ever larger and more devastating burn areas will be part of our landscape in the decades to come as humanity pumps out yet more carbon pollution.

The heat and long-term drought that’s gone with it have transformed California’s northern forests into so much tinder.  After its wildfires of 2020, leading climate scientist Michael Mann observed, “These are known as compound drought and heat wave (CDHW) events and refer to situations wherein a region experiences both prolonged hot temperatures and a shortage of water.”  His team predicts that such events will more than double in number and in duration, while quadrupling in intensity, if carbon pollution continues to be produced at its current rate.

Atmospheric Rivers

Worse yet, California now faces a double whammy — not just vastly increased wildfires and drought in some regions but major flooding in others. And in drought-stricken areas, sudden, massive rainfall simply runs off desiccated soil, adding to the risk of overflowing waters.

As it happens, human-made global warming hasn’t just heated up lands across the planet, but the oceans, too. In fact, this summer, ocean water temperatures broke all previous heat records and that also puts more moisture into the atmosphere. Worse yet, climate change has heated the atmosphere itself and warmer air holds more moisture. That change has, in turn, made the “atmospheric rivers” carrying moisture from the tropics to the temperate zone far more destructive.

Not surprisingly, then, on the last day of 2022, 5.5 inches of rain deluged downtown San Francisco, while putting all six lanes of Highway 101 to its south under water. A week later, Governor Newsom watched as sheets of rainfall, driven by 70-mile-an-hour winds, knocked out power to 345,000 people in the state capital, Sacramento.

This summer, the giant State Farm and Allstate insurance companies, ever more aware of the toll climate change was taking on their bottom lines in California, announced that they would no longer accept new customers there. As an explanation, State Farm cited “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure.” Take a moment to let that sink in. The situation humanity has created is now so calamitous that insurance companies are no longer willing to take on the once-safe bet that most houses will continue standing unharmed for decades.

If California were an independent country, it would have the fifth-largest economy in the world. As Attorney General Bonta notes, it has the deep pockets to take on the oil companies. And significantly, that state’s government is already among the world’s most forward-looking in combating climate change. In 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring that all cars sold in California by 2035 be battery-electric or hybrid vehicles. The plan has spurred similar actions by six other states.

In the past five years, electric vehicles as a percentage of new vehicle registrations in the Golden State have indeed skyrocketed from 2% to 22%. No less impressive, around 60% of the state’s electricity is now generated by low-carbon sources like wind and solar. To smooth out the transitions between solar and wind generation, California has put in 5 gigawatts of battery power, the most of any state, to forestall blackouts and avoid the necessity of using natural gas to fill the gap.

They Lied. They Deceived.

The attorney general’s filing against the oil companies asserts their culpability: “Oil and gas company executives have known for decades that reliance on fossil fuels would cause these catastrophic results, but they suppressed that information from the public and policymakers by actively pushing out disinformation on the topic.” This duplicity, the suit argues, was itself grounds for seeking redress.  “Their deception,” it continues, “caused a delayed societal response to global warming. And their misconduct has resulted in tremendous costs to people, property, and natural resources, which continue to unfold each day.”

In an interview with KCAL television, Bonta pulled no punches: “They must pay for their own actions… They lied. They deceived. They falsely advertised. They undermined the science and made claims that were counter to the truth. We’re holding them accountable for that.” When challenged by the interviewer, who warned the attorney general that he would need a “smoking gun” showing that the corporations were deceitful, Bonta didn’t hesitate: “We have smoking guns. Multiple. We have one from the 1960s. We have others in the decades that have followed. It is a very clear trend.”

His complaint is, in fact, festooned with such damning pieces of internal evidence, including a 1982 memo by Exxon scientist Roger Cohen, which admitted “a clear scientific consensus” on the expected effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the climate and suggested that doubling greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere would result in roughly a 3° Celsius (5.4° Fahrenheit) average global temperature rise, bringing about “significant changes in the earth’s climate, including rainfall distribution and alterations in the biosphere.”

In 1800, as the industrial revolution began, there were just 282 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Today, in part because of energy industry foot-dragging, there are about 420 ppm of CO2 and we’re speeding toward the 564 ppm that Cohen predicted would radically change our very biosphere. Climate scientist Michael Mann has pointed out in his new book Our Fragile Planet that, during the Pliocene era, 3.5 million years ago, that kind of ramp-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced a tropical world with ocean waters 30 feet higher than they are now.

Despite the warnings of Cohen and others, in 1989, Exxon joined other oil companies in forming the Global Climate Coalition, which combated attempts to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, while assuring journalists and politicians that “the role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood.” Some of those companies like Exxon even funded climate denialism when they knew perfectly well that it was a lie.

In the 1990s and thereafter, the oil companies, the California lawsuit alleges, went on to use organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council lobbying group to pressure Washington to do nothing about carbon pollution. At the same, they attempted to convince concerned Americans that climate change either wasn’t happening or, if it was, had nothing to do with burning fossil fuels.

In a distinctly overheating world, where heat records of all sorts are now regularly being broken, the denialism of Big Oil and its henchmen, including today most of the Republican Party, is already a crime of the first order.  The California suit is cleverly crafted.  If there is one thing you can’t do in societies like ours, where property rights are so central, it’s damage someone’s property knowingly and under the cover of deception.

The internal memos of scientists that have surfaced in such abundance from the very bowels of the petroleum corporations could be their biggest Achilles heel. They demonstrate that the injuries they have inflicted on the Earth are not simply an unforeseen side effect of their product but, at least in part, the result of a deliberate cover-up.

At last, Greta Thunberg’s hope that someone, especially someone with the power to do something, would finally get mad and connect the dots is being fulfilled. Let’s hope that California succeeds in both setting a meaningful precedent and making those companies pay in a big way, ending impunity for the most dangerous and deceitful assault on our environment in human history.

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