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San Francisco Sues Oil Companies to Abate Climate Change Impacts

San Francisco has filed a lawsuit in California State Court, for public nuisance, against a number of oil companies based upon their alleged contribution to sea level rise, due to fossil fuel emissions . The complaint, which names BP, Exxon, Chevron and other oil companies, seeks a direction that the companies set up an abatement fund to assist in combating the impacts of sea level rise,  an effect of climate change.

The complaint cites reports that, going back to the late 1970s or early 1980s, the companies were aware that fossil fuel use had adverse impacts on the climate,  yet they promoted fossil fuels as safe and beneficial.

“Defendants, notably, did not simply produce fossil fuels. They engaged in large-scale sophisticated advertising and relentless public relations campaigns to promote pervasive fossil fuel usage and to portray fossil fuel as environmentally responsible and essential to human-well being even as they knew that their fossil fuels would contribute, and subsequently were contributing to dangerous global warming and associated accelerated sea level rise. These promotional efforts continue through today…”

The complaint goes on to argue that past fossil fuel use has contributed to sea level rise, which will have impacts that last hundreds or even thousands of years. As a result, the claim is that the City of San Francisco will be forced to undertake activities to combat the impacts of sea level rise caused by climate change directly resulting from fossil fuel usage.

In addition, the complaint compares the actions of the oil companies to previous actions by tobacco companies to deny the health impacts of tobacco use. It notes that the oil companies worked to discredit the scientific evidence relating to the impact on climate resulting from the use of fossil fuels. This was despite the fact the oil companies had internal studies, that were recently disclosed, agreeing with publicly available scientific reports concluding fossil fuel use contributed to climate change and sea level rise.

The complaint notes that studies conducted by the City of San Francisco show that ten billion dollars of public property and thirty nine billion dollars of private property are at risk from sea level rise. As a result, there will be enormous costs to safeguard these properties from the impacts of sea level rise. Beyond being contributors to climate change, the complaint argues that the oil companies are “qualitatively different” from others who have contributed to climate change,  due to their in house scientific resources and prior knowledge of the impacts of fossil fuel use.

The relief requested is limited to creation of an abatement fund:

“The People seek an order requiring Defendants to abate the global warming-induced sea level rise nuisance to which they contributed by funding an abatement program to build sea walls and infrastructure that is urgently needed to protect human safety and public and private property in San Francisco. The People do not seek to impose liability on Defendants for their direct emissions of greenhouse gases and do not seek to restrain Defendants from engaging in their business operations. This case is, fundamentally, about shifting the costs of abating sea level rise harm…”

This case goes to the heart of the issues surrounding climate change and sea level rise. If successful it will have an enormous impact on the debate over the causes of climate change, not to mention shifting the costs of addressing its effects.

-Steven Silverberg