Three local governments in the US have launched legal claims against 20 fossil fuel companies, seeking a contribution to their costs of adapting to rising sea levels.
The case takes aim at the largest fossil fuel companies on the planet, known as carbon majors, including BP, Chevron Corporation, Exxon Mobil, Shell and Total.
The two coastal counties – San Mateo County, Marin County – and the City of Imperial Beach allege that greenhouse gas emissions from these companies between 1965 and 2015 will cause approximately 7.4 feet of global sea level rise in the future.
They argue that rising sea levels will put public and private property at risk and affect the rights of coastal residents in California to health, safety and peace.
ClientEarth law consultant Sophie Marjanac said: “This an unprecedented moment for climate change litigation. Multiple cases are being brought against Carbon Majors and governments worldwide.”
“Climate change has real impacts that put people, communities and their homes at risk. Lawyers are finding new and fresh ways to address these harms that have the potential to force Carbon Majors to pay for the damage their products have contributed to.”
Climate change litigation is starting to parallel the waves of cases brought against tobacco companies, which eventually turned the tide of public opinion against the industry.
This claim is the first in which local governments have sought costs from fossil fuel polluters to adapt to climate damages.
It is brought on grounds of public nuisance and negligence and – for the first time – product liability laws. These laws protect consumers by requiring sellers of dangerous products to provide a warning.
The counties argue that Carbon Majors have attempted to supress climate science to avoid regulation. Despite knowing the dangers of their products, their “oppressive, malicious and fraudulent” behaviour is in complete disregard for the rights of others.
They ask the court to order the fossil fuel companies to pay back what they have earned because of their wrongful conduct – known as a disgorgement of profits.