Time to Get Corporate Climate Polluters ‘Into a Court of Law’, Say Several Members of the US Congress
“The potential that this fight has in the courts is massive,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, said on Wednesday evening.
She was one of several speakers during a climate-focused webcast who highlighted the promise and the importance of holding corporate climate polluters accountable through litigation. The online event - “Climate Change: Where Do We Go from Here?” - hosted by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, discussed the planetary emergency that’s unfolding in real time and how to have a fighting chance of mitigating the crisis driven primarily by the products and the pernicious deception of the fossil fuel industry.
As investigative reporters and researchers have exposed in recent years, companies like ExxonMobil had early and accurate knowledge about the climate consequences of unrestrained fossil fuel use, and yet they spent decades disseminating climate denial that has now morphed into predatory delay.
“They knew since the 1970s with startling accuracy the exact temperatures that we would be experiencing in the 90s, in the 2000s, etc. They knew exactly what was going on, they knew their role, they knew their responsibility…but they very quickly decided the cheaper and easier thing to do would be to launch a muti-decade misinformation campaign in the United States and around the world,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
That deceit and accompanying obstruction of effective policy responses leaves little recourse, save for the third branch of government – the judicial branch, which serves an important role in holding bad actors accountable.
“Just like Big Tobacco which was held liable for the same exact thing…I think a very similar case can be brought to Big Oil and the fossil fuel companies in court,” Ocasio-Cortez added.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island also invoked the tobacco comparison; he specifically called for the U.S. Department of Justice to consider prosecuting Big Oil for fraud in the same way it did with Big Tobacco.
“I would love to see the Department of Justice bring exactly the kind of litigation that it won against the tobacco industry for lying about the dangers associated with its product,” he said. “When they had to stop lying, everything changed about tobacco. If the Biden DOJ would give an honest look at that kind of litigation against the lies of the fossil fuel industry, that could be a real turnaround.”
Whitehouse, a former prosecutor and Rhode Island attorney general, noted that “good things have happened in honest courtrooms recently,” pointing to the Dominion case against Fox News and E. Jean Carroll’s court win against Donald Trump. He said fossil fuel companies should also have to face legal consequences.
“I think you’ve got to get them into a court of law,” Whitehouse said.
This is already starting to happen, with states and municipalities filing climate liability lawsuits against major fossil fuel entities. Whitehouse noted that Rhode Island has an active case underway. Vermont, currently under a federal disaster declaration from the worst flooding it has seen in nearly a century, is also suing Big Oil. And as climate activist and author Bill McKibben said during the webcast, “Multnomah County where Portland, Oregon’s located just filed a $52 billion lawsuit in connection with the heat dome that settled over that part of the world in 2021.”
Yet there is no legal action happening at the federal level to try to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its big climate lies.
Sen. Sanders asked Whitehouse about the possibility of initiating a federal lawsuit.
“These guys have been lying for decades. They’ve been causing far more damage than the tobacco industry which has only killed many millions of people. Their product now is destroying large parts of the planet. Do you got a case as Attorney General of the United States to make?”
Whitehouse responded yes, “you absolutely do.”
“The first thing you want to do is look at discovery,” he explained. “You want to get their facts and their material out…if you really get into the fossil fuel documents, if you get into their exchanges with their lawyers, if you get through the crime-fraud exception into that, if you can get into the documents with their public relations companies, you can put a case before the American public that will just send them fleeing.”
Whitehouse said that discovery played a big part in the federal case against Big Tobacco, because it was brought under the racketeering statute RICO, which “allows for enormous discovery.”
“There are very powerful tools for the Biden administration to pursue this if they wanted to give it an honest look,” he added.
In response, Sanders posed an idea to take action. “Well, sounds to me like we should maybe pay the Attorney General a visit. What do you think?”
“Well you have to be careful about it,” Whitehouse answered.
But Sanders seemed convinced that this would be an appropriate next step. “I think it’s exactly what we should do. You indicated, we have a case to make, the world is at stake, politically I think it’s the right thing to do.”
McKibben agreed that the stakes now are even higher than they were in the fight against the tobacco industry. “The tobacco industry killed us one smoker at a time. The oil industry’s taking us out one planet at a time.”
And as Ocasio-Cortez said, courts have a critical role to play in this fight for a livable planet.
“These fossil fuel companies bear responsibility for what they have done. And it will be and should be the power of a court to compel them to do so.”