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Why the Biden-Harris Climate Accountability Pledge Really Matters

March 18, 2021, 8:01 AM

In just their first week in office, President Biden and Vice President Harris announced a wide range of policies and directives to address the worsening climate crisis. Among those initiatives is a commitment “to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.”

That commitment is a vitally important part of the new administration’s broader effort to restore trust in government, elevate truth in public discourse, and reinstate justice and accountability as core American values.

Truth, justice, and accountability are at the heart of a lawsuit I filed in 2020 to hold fossil fuel companies and their biggest trade association accountable for deceiving Minnesotans about the consequences of climate change and for the costs and damage that is imposing on our state. Nearly two dozen similar lawsuits have been filed by other states and local governments around the country.

These lawsuits and the administration’s commitment are important because the fossil fuel industry lied to consumers and others in Minnesota and across the U.S. Worse still, they knew they were lying, and their decades of deception is causing real—and expensive—harm.

Fossil-Fuel Companies Were Warned in the 1960s

Our communities should not have to suffer the costs and consequences of those companies’ actions while the companies walk away with trillions of dollars in profits.

Not surprisingly, the fossil fuel defendants and their surrogates are fighting back both in and out of the courtroom. Not only are they misrepresenting what our lawsuits are about—including enlisting the Trump administration’s Department of Justice in that effort in several related cases—but they’ve also sought a liability shield that would give the fossil fuel industry permanent immunity from any accountability for the damage they’ve done.

As far back as the 1960s, fossil fuel companies were warned by their own experts that continuing to produce, market, and sell their oil, gas, and coal products would cause rising seas, droughts, and other consequences that could be “severe” or even “catastrophic.”

In 1968, the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s major trade association, commissioned a Stanford Research Institute report that concluded because of increasing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, “there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.”

Then, in 1981, Exxon senior scientist Roger W. Cohen reviewed an internal report to senior management and warned it was “distinctly possible” that the CO2 emissions scenario developed by Exxon’s planning division will “produce effects that will indeed be catastrophic (at least for a substantial fraction of the earth’s population).”

Severe. Catastrophic. Those are the words of their own experts more than 40 years ago.

The fossil fuel companies could have taken steps to reduce or even avoid the damage. They could have warned people about it. But they didn’t do either.

Instead, when their experts’ warnings were confirmed by independent scientists in the late 1980s, and there was bipartisan support to regulate greenhouse gas pollution, the industry turned to their spin doctors. They embarked on a disinformation campaign, using many of the same PR firms, lobbyists, and spokespeople as the tobacco companies, to deceive the public, press, and policymakers about what they were doing to our climate and our communities.

In what civilized and just society, would anyone—let alone powerful corporations—be allowed to lie to consumers, harm them as a result, rake in trillions of dollars in profits, and then force the victims to pay for the damage?

But that’s what the fossil fuel industry is doing.

For example, they claim we are trying to punish them for selling a legal product. That’s false.

We took them to court because they’ve lied for decades about the climate change-related harm they knew their products would cause.

Opioids, tobacco, lead paint, and asbestos are also “legal products.” But the companies that made, marketed, and sold them were all held accountable in state courts because they lied to consumers and the public.

Our case against fossil fuel defendants seeks the same accountability.

Protecting Consumers

As Minnesota’s chief legal officer, it is my job to protect consumers from fraud and misrepresentation—and to protect our taxpayers from the costs and damage it caused.

And that’s more important now than ever because Minnesota is incurring huge costs to plan, design, and implement measures to help our residents survive the impacts of climate change—impacts that are disproportionately harming communities of color and low-income communities across the state.

What We Need From the Biden Administration

Here are three simple but critically important steps the Biden administration can take to implement its commitment to support these lawsuits.

First, make clear that the administration is standing with the states and local governments that are in court to hold fossil fuel industry accountable for its climate damage and deception.

Second, stop supporting the fossil fuel industry defendants in their efforts to undermine or block those lawsuits and, to the extent feasible, reverse the positions that DOJ has already taken on behalf of fossil fuel companies. Backing dishonest corporations at the expense of struggling communities is not a proper government function.

Last but not least, oppose any attempts by the fossil fuel industry to seek a liability shield from Congress. Nothing could be more fundamentally unjust and un-American than to close courthouse doors so that wealthy, powerful fossil fuel corporations can escape liability for the lies they’ve told and the damage they’re causing.

Now more than ever, truth, justice, and accountability matter.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Keith Ellison has served as the attorney general of Minnesota since January 2019. Before that, he served 12 years in the U.S. House. He was the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first African American and the first Muslim elected to statewide office in Minnesota.