State attorneys general from around the nation, including here in Massachusetts, are suing fossil fuel companies over climate change. Late last month, the state’s highest court rejected ExxonMobil’s bid to dismiss a lawsuit by Attorney General Maura Healey. And yes, you’ve seen this movie before.
There is compelling evidence, in the public eye for several years now, that the fossil fuel industry used the same playbook as the tobacco industry to spread disinformation, sow doubt, and deflect responsibility for the dangers of its products. When their own research revealed the harms they were inflicting, both industries responded with a strategy of denial and deception.
The states took Big Tobacco to court, and they won. The 1998 Master Settlement Agreement imposed tight restrictions on how tobacco companies can promote cigarettes, and requires tobacco makers to pay billions of dollars in damages to the states annually, for as long as they do business in the U.S.
The tobacco agreement was the culmination of almost 50 years of legal challenges.
What might a settlement between Big Oil and the states look like? And what effect would it have on our transition to cleaner energy sources and the course of the climate crisis?
[R]ulings against the fossil fuel industry could expedite the energy transition and help states become more climate-resilient.
Legal decisions in the 1990s didn’t eliminate cigarettes, but adult smoking rates did decline markedly in the first two decades of this century. Exactly how much of the drop is attributable to court findings against Big Tobacco is indeterminable, but it’s plausibly significant. The industry’s settlement funded national anti-smoking programs. It also necessitated price increases that made smoking less accessible to vulnerable populations, especially young people.
Analogously, court decisions alone won’t spell the end of the climate crisis, but there are several ways in which rulings against the fossil fuel industry could expedite the energy transition and help states become more climate-resilient.
Cash, of course, is always useful — and welcomed. All the states will feel the effect of the warming climate in some fashion, and they’ll need to spend large sums on adaptation. When the tobacco settlements were being doled out in the late 1990s, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five territories lined up to get their share of the pot.
In the ongoing 2019 Massachusetts v. Exxon climate case, the state has asked the court to compel ExxonMobil to pay damages — likely in the billions of dollars — related to violations of the state’s consumer protection laws and efforts to mislead the public. But beyond the monetary compensation, a victory for AG Healey would amount to only an injunction against ExxonMobil’s greenwashing and deceptive marketing.
Local governments in California are pursuing a more ambitious lawsuit. They are suing fossil fuel companies for the cost of physical damages due to…
Read More: States took Big Tobacco to court and won. Can they now beat Big Oil?