Bloomberg Law
Nov. 1, 2022, 8:00 AM

Climate Change Lawsuits Are the Best Way to Force Action

Kirk Caldwell
Kirk Caldwell
Former Mayor of Honolulu

As the mayor of Honolulu from 2013 to 2021, I led the city when we filed a lawsuit in 2020 against some of the world’s biggest oil and gas corporations. The lawsuit’s goal is to hold these companies accountable for their decades-long climate misinformation campaign, and the terrible damage global heating is bringing to our shores.

Honolulu’s legal fight to make the polluters pay continues to win key victories and is proceeding toward a potentially explosive trial in state court.

The evidence will show how these oil and gas corporations knowingly fueled the climate crisis by lying to the public to protect astronomical earnings. These profits have spiked even as our globe melts, burns, and floods: ExxonMobil just reported that it made $19.66 billion in corporate profit from the last quarter alone, which equates to over $200 million per day.

Fossil fuel interests and their enablers have sought to publicly discredit and mischaracterize Honolulu’s lawsuit, even as state and federal judges have repeatedly rejected the companies’ arguments. A recent opinion piece from Sarah Hunt recycles these phony attacks, borrowing heavily from the same deceptive and misleading tactics cited at the heart of our consumer protection suit.

Misleading Narratives

These days, rather than outright lie about the science of climate change, the industry pushes misleading narratives about how they are “responsibly” addressing the climate crisis they themselves created.

Hunt doubles down on the industry’s defense that they had no special knowledge that their products would cause catastrophic climate change. However, Honolulu has cited a mountain of internal documents, employee confessions, and journalism exposes that establish that the companies not only knew but actively lied about their knowledge, effectively undermining responsible scientists and others trying to raise alarm bells.

Hunt and others argue that the solution now to fossil fuel-driven climate change is to simply “cooperate” with the same polluters that intentionally drove us into this ditch.

Things Not Discussed

Here are the facts they ignore.

The oil and gas industry spent the last two years lobbying against federal climate legislation. A recent peer-reviewed study examining the investments of four of the Big Oil defendants in Honolulu’s lawsuit—Exxon, Chevron, BP, and Shell—drily stated that the companies’ “transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse.

During a 2021 congressional hearing, the executives from those same companies flatly refused to pledge that they would stop funding efforts against climate action. An ongoing congressional investigation has revealed additional evidence that the companies continue to mislead the public even today about their clean energy commitments.

Big Oil is not a good-faith partner in climate solutions, and it remains an open question if the greenwashing and revisionism they push out today are only in response to suits like ours filed to get at the truth.

More than two dozen states and municipalities have now taken ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel majors to court. The critical issue at the heart of these climate liability cases is who is going to pay the trillions of dollars required to defend our communities against the ravages of climate change?

Like Honolulu, these cities and states are struggling with skyrocketing bills to protect residents and businesses from rising seas, floods, heat waves, wildfires, droughts, and other climate damages that the oil and gas industry knew its products would stoke. We aren’t looking to re-write national energy policy with these cases. We simply ask that the corporations that knew since the 1960’s that their products would cause havoc stop lying about it and pay a portion of their ill-gotten profits to help cover the damage.

The Cover-Up

As with tobacco and opioid cases, the fault is not in the making of the product–it’s in the cover-up of the known impacts.

US District Judge Derrick Watson explained in a recent ruling for Honolulu that these arguments from fossil fuel companies “misconstrue” our claims. Watson said that the lawsuit we brought focuses on “alleged concealment of the dangers of fossil fuels, rather than the acts of extracting, processing, and delivering those fuels.”

Public officials have a duty to seek justice for their constituents. That’s why I and many other mayors and attorneys general have turned to the courts so that polluters pay for the cover-up and harm they knowingly caused.

Fossil fuel corporations have sought to escape these cases, but five circuit courts and 12 federal district courts have unanimously affirmed the right of our communities to seek accountability and the truth in state court. As these cases inch closer to trial, we can expect more misdirection and attacks–it’s clear they have enough billions in profits to pay operatives across the country.

But just as tobacco and opioid companies had to ultimately answer for their deceptive and illegal behavior in court, so too will Big Oil.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Kirk Caldwell served as the 14th mayor of the city and county of Honolulu from 2013 to 2021. He began his public service career in 2002, when he was elected to the Hawaii State House of Representatives and served as majority leader. He was appointed managing director for Honolulu in 2009 and served as acting mayor in 2010 before being elected to serve two full terms.