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The courts are deciding who's to blame for climate change

Posted on 16 April 2018 by dana1981

There are numerous ongoing legal challenges in an effort to determine who’s responsible for climate change. Exxon is under investigation by state attorneys general, cities are suing oil companies over sea level rise costs, and Our Children’s Trust is suing the federal government for failing to protect their generation from climate change. At the heart of these legal challenges lies the question – who bears culpability for climate change and liability for its costs and consequences?

Like Exxon, Shell Knew

Exxon has been a prime target of these investigations and lawsuits since Inside Climate News’ investigative journalism revealed that the company’s internal climate science research warned of the dangers posed by human-caused global warming since the late 1970s.

Recently, Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers of De Correspondent unearthed internal documents from Shell that began warning of the dangers associated with human-caused climate change 30 years ago. The company’s 1988 report titled “The Greenhouse Effect” warned,

by the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation.

And, particularly relevant to Our Children’s Trust’s lawsuits, Shell’s 1988 report warned of the climate consequences for future generations.


Similarly, in a 1991 film called Climate of Concern, Shell warned,

Global warming is not yet certain, but many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible. Action now is seen as the only safe insurance.

The case against Exxon and Shell is similar to the case against the tobacco companies – that they engaged in fraud to deceive the American public about the health effects of their products. However, the oil companies modified the tobacco playbook. Rather than directly misinform the public, they funneled money to conservative think tanks who did the dirty work as Merchants of Doubt. By both outsourcing the misinformation campaign and allowing their scientists to publish research in peer-reviewed journals – where it was available to but largely unseen by the public – the oil companies tried to buffer themselves against the legal liability that took down the tobacco industry.

The case against the government

The case against the fossil fuel industry largely relies on proving that these companies deceived the American public about the threats posed by consuming their products. The case against the federal government appears more straightforward. In their defense against the cities suing over sea level rise damages, the oil industry lawyers essentially argued that the blame lies not on the producers, but rather the consumers of fossil fuels, and that any economic issues should be addressed through policy rather than in the court system.

But of course, the American government has failed to implement climate policies over the past two decades. In 1998, the Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The Bush Administration censored government climate science reportsand took no action to address climate change. Thanks to a Republican filibusterthreat, a carbon cap and trade bill that had passed the House died in the Senate in 2009. The Obama administration finally took concrete steps to address climate change, for example by drafting the Clean Power Plan and signing the Paris climate accords, but the Trump administration has (at least temporarily) reversed all of those efforts.

In short, Our Children’s Trust is correct to allege that the American government has failed to protect the coming generations from the threats and damages of climate change.

Everyone shares the climate change blame

The oil companies do make a valid point that consumers share the blame for causing climate change. The public has been aware of the climate threat for over a decade – the subject was popularized in An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Yet 12 years later, Americans are still buying gas guzzling trucks and SUVs, while hybrid and electric vehicles account for just 3% of new car sales.

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Suggested supplemental reading:

    Kids are suing Gov. Rick Scott to force Florida to take action on climate change by Alex Harris, Miami Herald, Apr 16, 2018

    Boulder County expected to join city in climate change lawsuit against fossil fuel producers by Alex Burness, Times-Call, Apr 16, 2018

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  2. Exon is not responsible for climate change, nor is Shell or any of the coal miners.  It is like saying that the drug crisis in the USA and other western countries is due to the drug manufacturers.  The fault is with the consumers; with us.  We could be financing our politicians instead of thinking we are getting away with something clever by letting vested interests pay for them.  We are so wrong.  Who pays the piper calls the tune.

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  3. Exonn and Shell are responsible to the extent they allegedly hid information from the public, and supported deliberate campaigns of denial. The tobacco companies were sued on the same basis. 

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  4. "Allegedly" is such a worthless word in this context.

    It's all right there in the documents, no "alleged" about it.

    Criminal fraud and denial, and nothing less, is what they did and now we all get to feel the heat for a lazy public drinking their Kool-Aid.

    Although in fairness, we're all co-conspirators, we've know since the 80s, if not 70s (when I learned about it) and even 60s, exactly what we were doing, denial be damned.

    It was easier to look away and enjoy the party, than to listen to fundamental math lessons - look up 'Albert Bartlett.'  Or to care about Earth's interwoven systems beyond the quick profits that could get sucked out of them. So sad.

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  5. Citizenchallenge, yeah the evidence is in the documents. I just didn't want my comment deleted for claiming law breaking before its proven in court, as happened to me on another website recently . No other motive.  

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  6. william, setting aside 'the whole human race is responsible for climate change', there are clearly some subsets of the human race which are more responsible than others... with those who have profited off it, and used those profits to deceive the public about it, being at the top of the list.

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  7. We are: the people lead, governments follow!

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