Climate Polluters Must Help Foot the Bill for Costs to Communities

Big Oil condemns us to superstorms, heat waves and floods while it reaps the profits.

Last month, New York City filed suit against ExxonMobil and four other major oil and gas companies for climate change harms. New York follows several California cities and counties in seeking accountability from industry for its role in creating and profiting from the climate crisis. Other cities, such as Boulder, Colorado, have announced their intention to file similar lawsuits.

The response from ExxonMobil and its proxies has been predictably misleading. Exxon has cast the New York suit as a misguided effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through litigation. Make no mistake, emissions need to be cut dramatically, but that's not what this suit or others hope to achieve.

These suits are really about fairness and justice. Exxon has known since at least the 1960s that its product would wreak catastrophic and costly damage across the world. In 1984, an Exxon scientist presented the company with a stark choice: "We can either adapt our civilization to a warmer planet or avoid the problem by sharply curtailing the use of fossil fuels."

We all know what choice Exxon and its fellow fossil fuel companies made. Worse than that, however, is that they made this choice for the rest of the world. They deceived the public about the risks of climate change, condemning cities like New York to "adapt .... to a warmer planet," while they reaped the profits.

A beach house in Far Rockaway, New York, was completely destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, which has been linked to anthropogenic climate change. Causing more than 230 fatalities and $75 billion in damages, Sandy was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. (image: Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock)

Now that cities and counties are facing mounting costs from climate change, these companies should have to help foot the bill. They have accrued trillions of dollars in profits, and now they want to leave the taxpayers of New York, and communities across America, holding the bag.

Many people played some role in creating the climate crisis, but that does not mean fault is shared equally. Those companies that profited from their climate fraud should bear the largest responsibility.

Exxon now publicly admits what it has known for at least 50 years—that carbon emissions "are having a warming effect." But even now, long past the point when the science has been undeniable, Exxon is still supporting climate denial. As of 2016, Exxon was still funding the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a reactionary anti-environmentalist legal group. When Boulder announced its intention to sue, Mountain States responded by saying that such lawsuits “would have to prove that climate change is real.”

The damage done by Exxon's decades of deceit will take years to correct, especially if Exxon continues to fund such lies. The damage from Exxon’s reckless endangerment of the planet will take even longer to address, and much of it is irreversible. Communities will need to deal with superstorms, heat waves, floods, droughts, sea level rise and any number of other impacts for the foreseeable future.

New York City is simply the latest city to demand that Exxon and other fossil fuel companies pay their fair share to plan for and adapt to climate change, and it won't be the last. Communities across the country who are living with the impacts of climate change every day are right to zero in on the companies that profited.

Marco Simons is the General Counsel at EarthRights International.