Now that President Biden, who campaigned on climate action, is in the White House, we are closer than ever to passing long-needed federal legislation to address our worsening climate crisis.
But while President Biden and the new Congress will seek to reduce emissions and transition us to a clean energy economy, it will fall to the courts, and lawsuits like one brought by Rhode Island, to decide a crucial matter of justice: who should pay for the escalating costs that climate change damages like sea-level rise and flooding create for our communities?
The multibillion-dollar fossil fuel industry has produced the vast majority of planet-warming emissions in modern history. According to their own scientists and internal documents, oil giants like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell knew decades ago that their products would cause “catastrophic” damages. Worse still, they spent subsequent decades lying and spreading misinformation about the crisis they created in order to delay government action. These companies bear responsibility for climate change and should be held accountable for the costs.
With hundreds of miles of vulnerable coastline, the Ocean State knows better than most that rising seas, coastal erosion, storm surge, and other climate damages pose a dire threat to our livelihoods, homes and infrastructure.
Thankfully, our state was the first in the nation to take legal action against these corporate polluters so our communities and taxpayers aren’t stuck footing the bill. Rhode Island’s case is not about solving climate change. It’s about recovering the cost of the damages in order to survive it.
That fight is now entering a crucial stage, and opposition from fossil fuel interests will surely become more intense. Since Rhode Island sued more than 20 oil and gas companies in 2018, four more states, Washington, D.C., and a growing list of municipalities from Charleston, S.C., to Honolulu, Hawaii, have filed similar lawsuits. High-paid industry lawyers have fought to delay these cases and get them tossed out of state court, because Big Oil fears the evidence against them coming out in trial.
But courts have consistently rejected the companies’ efforts to escape justice. This fall, the First Circuit Court of Appeals handed Big Oil another defeat, ruling that Rhode Island’s case can and should proceed in state court. The judges wrote that “at its core, Rhode Island’s claim is simple: the oil companies knew what fossil fuels were doing to the environment and continued to sell them anyway, all while misleading consumers about the true impact of the products.”
The day before President Biden’s inauguration, the U.S. Supreme Court waded into the issue for the first time, hearing another plea from the oil industry for a procedural delay in a lawsuit from Baltimore. According to the Associated Press, both liberal and conservative justices sounded skeptical of the industry’s arguments.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse led impressive groups of attorneys general and U.S. Senators, respectively, in urging the high court to let these lawsuits proceed without delay. Senator Whitehouse —long a leading and cogent voice in the Senate for climate action — and his colleagues also warned of an “orchestrated and coordinated campaign” by the fossil fuel industry and dark money front groups to deceive the Supreme Court about their shared financial interests in stopping these lawsuits.
Fossil fuel defenders will argue that these cases aren’t the “right way” for Rhode Island to seek justice. They’ll tell you that working with the companies who created the problem on vague “innovative solutions” is the way forward. But Rhode Islanders should remember the dirty truth: The reason these companies are being sued by communities across the country is because they lie. They lied for decades about climate change, and they’re lying now about their responsibility to pay for the damage they caused. It’s time we stop listening to them.
Rep. Terri Cortvriend, a Democrat, represents District 72 in Portsmouth and Middletown.