Baltimore has decided to take Big Oil by the horns. In late July, Baltimore filed a lawsuit against 26 defendants — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell — for exacerbating the city’s sea level rise and contributing to recent sporadic weather behavior. City officials argue that these escalating impacts of climate change are at fault for the mounting expenses of protecting Baltimore’s residents, businesses, and infrastructure.
Big Oil’s Dirty Secret
Earlier this year, journalist Jelmer Mommers discovered a confidential Shell report titled “The Greenhouse Effect” that summarized results of a 1986 study organized by the company’s Greenhouse Effect Working Group. The report acknowledged the role of fossil fuels in driving greenhouse gas emissions and quantified the climate impact of Shell’s products specifically; accurately predicted and analyzed climate impacts like rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and human migration; and strongly recommended early policy action to curtail climate change.
“With very long time scales involved, it would be tempting for society to wait until then to begin doing anything,” the Shell report reads. “The potential implications for the world are, however, so large, that policy options need to be considered much earlier. And the energy industry needs to consider how it should play its part.”
A similar revelation was made upon the unearthing of ExxonMobil’s 1982 climate research that anticipated an increase in global average temperatures by two to three degrees Celsius and a significant impact on some regions’ agricultural output.
But despite this knowledge, Shell, ExxonMobil, and its fellow industry titans spearheaded efforts to cast doubt on climate science. In 1989, ExxonMobil and Shell joined an organized coalition of businesses called the Global Climate Coalition to lobby against greenhouse gas reductions. Although the organization officially disbanded in 2002, affiliate climate change deniers continue to influence news media, public opinion, and environmental policy. And while some have recently acknowledged the credibility of climate science, fossil fuel companies often hold that responsibility should not fall on their business operations, but rather, the federal government’s power to regulate through legislation.
“For 50 years, these companies have known their products would cause rising seas and other climate change-related problems facing Baltimore today,” said Baltimore Solicitor Andre Davis. “They could have warned us. They could have taken steps to minimize or avoid the damage. In fact, they had a responsibility to do both, but they didn’t, and that’s why we’re taking them to court.”
A Beacon of Hope?
Baltimore’s lawsuit comes at an awkward time, but setbacks haven’t yet deterred Baltimore activists from organizing.
News of Baltimore’s case came out only a day after a federal judge threw out New York’s climate change lawsuit against many of the same petroleum companies. Even more disheartening, climate reparations cases pursued by San Francisco and Oakland were dismissed earlier last month. And absent a fresh angle, many are rightfully skeptical of the Baltimore’s ability to make change happen.
However, Baltimore bears one fundamental difference between its own case and these ghosts of lawsuits past: Baltimore has filed in its state circuit court, not a federal court. While federal courts have acknowledged the dangers of climate change, case dismissals have hinged on deferring the responsibility of drafting climate solutions to the other two branches of federal government. Since federal courts have set a precedent in favor of oil companies, some are hopeful that filing at the state-level could encourage a difference in outcome.
The state of Rhode Island also recently filed a climate change lawsuit against 21 oil companies in a state court on the grounds of constituting a “public nuisance.” Shell has motioned to take the suit to the federal court — a decision that, if approved, may jeopardize the case.
But regardless of formal results, recent efforts on behalf of Baltimore and other major cities have sparked a national discussion regarding the oil industry’s responsibility for the current climate change crisis. Perhaps environmental health advocate Tamara Toles O’Laughlin put it best when she wrote that Baltimore’s case will “sound the alarm on the calculable externalities of climate in an age where the facts are known.”
“The courts exist to provide certainty about big questions and set in motion a framework for accountability,” said O’Laughlin. “There is no bigger question facing us than the costs of inaction on climate.”