Big Oil’s pants are on fire— and Honolulu’s gonna sue them right off

Got ‘em. Right in the coconuts.

Last week, you were briefed on the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long, ongoing campaign to lie to the public (or, as Bernie put it during the debate last night, lie and lie and lie) and undercut action on the climate crisis: they pumped the airwaves with fake science, crushed proactive climate policy, and made sure modern life was dependent on oil. And you got a teaser that something was being done about it.

Well, I wasn’t kidding.

Here’s what happened: a few weeks ago, the mayors of Maui and Honolulu announced their intent to file suit against giant oil companies for the costs associated with climate change in their communities.

And on November 12, the Honolulu City Council voted unanimously to carry through with it.

Why Hawai’i?

Hawai’i is playing whack-a-mole against an avalanche of worsening climate impacts, from coastal erosion and flooding to extreme weather and warming temperatures. One study estimates that rising seas alone could cost the state $19 billion in lost land and infrastructure.

Folks on the ground are dealing with all this on top of paying to prepare and rebuild their neighborhoods. Farmers like Kaisen— hear from him in the video below, produced by Sierra Club Hawai’i— are getting screwed.

Yet Big Oil— who, as we’ve established, knew and lied about the oncoming climate crisis— refuses to chip in a single cent.

Hawai’i residents are fighting back.

Just like the tobacco and opioid industries before them, Big Oil is being taken to court. 14 cases have already been filed against the industry by cities, counties and states across the U.S. for deceiving the public and wreaking havoc on our jobs, communities, and lives— and Honolulu will join them. (Other cases are being filed against Big Oil for fraud, too, but we’ll get into that later.)

But how much is climate change going to cost us, really?

Earlier this year, we (and by we, I mean the Center for Climate Integrity, the people who cut my paychecks) conducted a study to find out the cost of building seawalls to protect the lower 48 from rising seas. The result? A national total of more than $400 BILLION by 2040.

For a good number of states and counties, building seawalls alone will cost more than their total annual budgets. And because building seawalls is just one of many actions needed to address sea level rise, let alone a whole range of other climate impacts, this would mean that communities would have to pull money from other critical public services. Money that should’ve gone to schools, hospitals, emergency services, and more would be spent upgrading broken sewer systems, building cooling centers to keep residents without air conditioners from dying in the heat, rebuilding homes and infrastructure after hurricanes— you name it. The only other option would be to abandon entire neighborhoods to climate disasters and rising seas.

That is, unless there’s a giant pile of ill-begotten money lying around somewhere that could be used to help.

Who can file a climate cost recovery suit?

Typically, an attorney general will file suit on behalf of their state— as was done in Rhode Island— or another elected official could file on behalf of their city or county. But that’s not the only option. In November of 2018, the largest trade association of fishermen on the west coast filed suit against 30 fossil fuel companies on behalf of Oregon and California crabbers. The warming Pacific Ocean had created conditions for toxic algae blooms so lethal that coastal businesses were closed for the better part of four straight years.

“In addition to seeking compensation from fossil fuel companies for losses suffered by crabbers and others from those closures, we’re demanding these companies pay for additional measures that will help mitigate future impacts,” said Noah Oppenheim, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations’ executive director.

“Those costs should not fall on the shoulders of hard-working fishermen, first receivers, and their families when the only reason they’re needed is because of what the fossil fuel companies have done.”

So where are these cases now? What does Big Oil have to say about them? And are there other ways of holding them accountable?

We’re saving that for next time. Stay tuned.