King County, Washington (home of Seattle) filed suit last week in state court against several major oil companies: BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch, and ConocoPhillips. Joining other coastal municipalities like New York City and San Francisco, the suit claims that petroleum products sold by the companies contribute to climate change leading to all sorts of natural disasters. According to the suit, these companies are responsible for floods, landslides, ocean acidification and sea level rise. It alleges that climate change, caused by the defendants’ production of energy sources, has negatively impacted these areas, including threatening the county’s transportation, public health and drainage systems. In his statement announcing the lawsuit, King County Executive Dow Constantine defended the suit as necessary to “hold these companies accountable as we marshal our resources to protect and preserve what makes this region great.”
Why are governmental bodies suing companies under the banner of climate protection? While many elected officials of these cities and counties truly do believe that global warming is a real man-made threat, these lawsuits might be about more than assessing blame for climate change. Governmental bodies like King County have found a potentially useful way to turn a phenomenon — whether one calls it climatic, sociological, political or, increasingly, legal — into a potential way to fund local government projects. According to officials referenced in MyNorthwest “An abatement fund could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.” As, Chris Horner, an attorney specializing in government transparency and energy policy detailed in a Western Wire story by Michael Sandoval, the aim is not to win these suits, but to settle, “hopefully for a large pot of money.”
Oil and other energy-producing companies aren’t arguing either way on the issue of climate change but, according to The Washington Times, believe it’s a “global issue and requires global participation and actions.” For these municipalities, however, global action doesn’t make a very compelling legal case or create an easily identifiable bad guy. Therefore just as King County’s largest city and center of government, Seattle, is finding its own creative ways to get more money for government programs (i.e. the infamous “head tax”, a new tax specifically targeting those who manage to employ the most people, to pay for City programs). These suits appear to be cut from the same budgetary cloth.
Another hint at the background to these suits is found in the group spearheading this particular lawsuit: Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP. Hagens Berman is a Seattle-based group of trial lawyers who are also behind the climate lawsuits in San Francisco, New York and other places. If the lawsuit is successful as Forbes points out, the firm will earn millions of dollars by winning victories in local courts (at least such an award would also qualify the firm for the “head tax”, under its revenue trigger).
As Lindsey de la Torre, executive director of the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project stated, “Lawsuits targeting manufacturers do nothing to address climate change, but will do plenty to line the pockets of plaintiffs’ attorneys – and in this case, the very same attorneys behind other public nuisance lawsuits throughout the country.”
One interesting twist in this litigation is that one of the area’s most prominent “climate” advocates, University of Washington professor Cliff Mass, firmly disputes the claim that energy companies have caused rising sea levels, one of the key harms alleged in the lawsuit.
Sea level rise is not accelerating appreciably, even though greenhouse gas concentrations are rapidly rising. And the rise of sea level began more than a century ago, well before humans could have been a significant cause. In fact, there was something called the Little Ice Age that occurred during the 1500s to middle 1800s, with subsequent warming that was mainly natural. The current sea level rise period appears to have its origin in the demise of the Little Ice Age and the warming that followed.
So claims that all or most of the rise in sea level is due to human-emitted greenhouse gases appear problematic because it started before humans could be the main cause. The casual link is further weakened by the lack of acceleration of sea level rise during the past few decades.
Perhaps the defendants can call the local climate spokesman to testify…
What will become of these lawsuits? Will municipalities like King County be successful in finding a new way to finance local government? Will the law firm find ways to be successful through the local courts? Or will justice prevail and these lawsuits be dismissed without merit? The next few months, in several courts of jurisdiction, should provide some clue.