Column: Fossil fuel companies deserve lawsuit
Fossil fuels have certainly been useful products that powered the economy, but the industry could have chosen many other paths to profit.
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A recent Star-Advertiser editorial made a case for suing fossil fuel companies for their role in the billions the climate crisis will cost you for repairs and fortifications (“Hold fossil fuel companies to account,” Our View, Nov. 10). Further, 69% of Hawaii residents think these companies should pay for climate crisis damages, according to polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. How could you disagree?
Fossil fuels have certainly been useful products that powered the economy, but the industry could have chosen many other paths to profit. Photovoltaics had been commercialized in the 1950s. Lithium batteries, hydrogen fuel cells and large wind turbines were all ripe for research and development in the 1970s.
The one model today’s oil behemoths chose was the one model they knew was “distinctly possible” to “later produce effects which will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the Earth’s population),” according to an October article in The Guardian, forcing people to use oil and gas.
Polls that say a suit is a waste of time, and comments that say it will cost taxpayers, are misguided and thoughtless. Honolulu is trying to save taxpayers money. Recovering from the climate crisis, and adapting to it, will cost Honolulu many billions. This will come from taxes, of course. Suing the companies that largely caused the crisis will cost taxpayers nothing because it will be on contingency, meaning that if the city wins, the law firm it hires will be paid only from part of those proceeds. In a loss, the city and you, the taxpayers, pay nothing.
The fossil fuel industry’s latest trick is to blame you for the climate crisis. Yes, you, you car-driving, appliance-using evil person. Those multibillion, international conglomerates didn’t do anything wrong — they only chose to produce the fuel they knew decades ago would drastically alter your climate, and then provide you no other way to get around or turn on your lights. You caused it all.
Governments can’t bring themselves to regulate greenhouse gas emissions because, for example, during the 2018 election campaigns, the oil industry spent $2 million on Facebook and Instagram ads promoting the benefits of increased fossil fuel production. A separate campaign that successfully stopped a carbon tax in Washington state was supported by Chevron, and included a $13 million donation from BP.
A suit, won or lost, influences public opinion, leading to more suits. Eventually, one of the suits will succeed, as it did with the tobacco industry after many attempts. You may not win. But you need to try. It could help offset the untold billions you’ll be paying in taxes, as earth, air, fire and water all convulse with horrors we’ve never before seen.
And though the dozen current suits against the fossil fuel industry resemble the tobacco suits, this industry deserves to forfeit far more, because it knew it would affect everyone on Earth, willing customer or not.
A suit should not only insist on recovering direct damages, but also demand tremendous retribution, to compensate for your losses beyond pure dollars: beaches, species, cultural sites, peace of mind, gorgeous weather, and natural beauty.
Oh, and someone else has lost as well. All of your descendants will endure a far more wretched world than did all of your ancestors.
David Mulinix is co-founder of 350Hawaii, a nonprofit working to counter climate change.