Climate Change New York City
Hagens Berman represents the city of New York in a lawsuit filed against BP PLC, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC alleging that the Big Oil giants are responsible for the city’s costs of protecting its more than 8.5 million residents from global warming-induced sea level rise, including expenses to construct seawalls and other coastal barriers, and heat-related hazards that threaten the health, safety and welfare of its residents.
The defendant oil companies are the five largest, investor-owned producers of fossil fuels in the world, as measured by the cumulative carbon and methane pollution generated from the use of their fossil fuels.
The complaint seeks damages for the costs already incurred, and for actions the city is currently taking, to protect city infrastructure and property, and to protect the public health, safety, and property of its residents from the impacts of climate change. The complaint alleges that these costs will be in the billions.
The lawsuit alleges the city already has suffered severe damage from climate change, including inundation, erosion, and regular tidal flooding of its property. The complaint alleges it faces additional “imminent threats” to property, infrastructure and the health and safety of its residents.
The complaint, filed Jan. 9, 2018, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, seeks to hold the oil companies accountable for past, ongoing and future-planned development of fossil fuels, which are directly impacting the city with rising sea levels, and hazardous heat impacts.
The lawsuit alleges defendants knowingly continue their environmentally destructive behavior, seeking to shroud it with a sophisticated campaign to convince their consumers and the public that pervasive fossil fuel use is beneficial and environmentally responsible, and that defendants have misleadingly downplayed the risks of global warming with a campaign of denial that was intended to promote their fossil fuels products.
The complaint alleges: "This egregious state of affairs is no accident. Defendants’ actions in producing, marketing, and selling fossil fuels for decades and at ever more dangerous levels while knowing of the harm that was substantially certain to result constitutes an unlawful public and private nuisance and an illegal trespass upon City property.”
Big Oil Ignored Warnings
The suit details a history of flagrant disregard from Big Oil as the impacts of fossil fuel usage on the environment became more and more clear and that in some cases certain defendants’ management was warned by their own scientists and trade association scientists in the late 1970s and early 1980s about the potentially catastrophic impacts threatened by global warming. The suit alleges, “For decades, Defendants have known that their fossil fuel products pose risks of ‘severe’ and even ‘catastrophic’ impacts on the global climate through the work and warnings of their own scientists and/or through their trade association, the API.”
The API (American Petroleum Institute) is a national trade association that represents the interests of America’s oil and natural gas industry, including foreign-based companies that produce and market fossil fuels in the United States. The complaint alleges that in a 1982 report, the API projected potentially “serious consequences for man’s comfort and survival,” and noted that “the height of the sea level can increase considerably,” based on a projected doubling of atmospheric concentrations of CO2.
The lawsuit states that Exxon management was informed by its scientists in 1977 that there was an “overwhelming” consensus that fossil fuels were responsible for atmospheric carbon dioxide increases. The presentation summarized a warning from an international scientific conference at the time that “IT IS PREMATURE TO LIMIT USE OF FOSSIL FUELS BUT THEY SHOULD NOT BE ENCOURAGED.” The scientist presenting the material warned management, “Present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”
Despite knowledge of the impacts of fossil fuel use, these actions carry on into the present, as the risk of rising sea levels intensifies, especially for coastal cities. “[E]ach Defendant decided to continue its conduct and commit itself to massive fossil fuel production. This deliberate decision placed company profits ahead of human safety, well-being, and property, and foisted onto the public the costs of abating and adapting to climate change,” the complaint states.
New York City’s Costly Protection from Rising Sea Levels
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, New York City made unprecedented commitment to climate adaption and resiliency and launched a $20 billion-plus multilayered investment program in climate resiliency across all five of its boroughs. The plans detail methods to protect the city’s neighborhoods from flood risk due to coastal storms and sea level rise, including a $760 million 2.4-mile-long barrier along the East River. “The City must build sea walls, levees, dunes, and other coastal armaments and must elevate, solidify, and adapt a vast array of City-owned structures, properties, and parks along its whole coastline, not only the stretches flooded by Sandy,” the suit says.
The lawsuit outlines in simple terms the responsibilities the oil companies have in combatting rising sea levels: “This lawsuit is based upon the fundamental principle that a corporation that makes a product causing severe harm when used exactly as intended should shoulder the costs of abating that harm,” it begins.
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