The Tiny arctic village of Kivalina , Alaska could be the beginning of the end for Big Oil. Two veteran tobacco litigators have joined forces in a novel court action to sue oil companies for climate-related damage to the remote Inuit village – and for lying to the public about climate change.
Kivalina is a native community of less than 400 people on an island in the Bearing Sea that depends on salmon fishing and hunting. The village has been protected for generations by sea ice that shields the area from powerful winter storms. Less ice due to a rapidly changing climate has greatly increased the rate of erosion and storm damage, forcing the community to consider relocating at a cost of more than $400 million.
If this novel lawsuit proves successful it could spell big trouble for the fossil fuel industry. For decades, Big Oil has been using the atmosphere as a free dumping ground for carbon dioxide. But as they say, there’s no free lunch.
Steve Susman and Steve Berman have been down this road before. These senior litigators were both involved some of the first successful lawsuits to hold tobacco companies accountable for the well-known health impacts of smoking.
These suits also resulted in billions of dollars in settlements and effectively brought Big Tobacco to their knees. A critical strategy of those court actions proving to the court that Big Tobacco conspired to conceal the dangers of their product from the public.
Sound familiar? Susman and Berman want to employ the same strategy against Big Oil. From a legal point of view, it is not enough to prove that burning fossil fuels is damaging to the environment. They must also demonstrate that Big Oil conspired to lie about their product to the public. They have a lot to work with.
For instance, ExxonMobil was specifically implicated by the Union of Concerned Scientists of funding a Big Tobacco-style
PR campaign to misinform the public on climate science.
While the fossil fuel lobby has been highly successful at delaying meaningful regulation around climate change, they may have over-played their hand. By investing so heavily in distorting public debate around climate change, they have given lawyers like Susman and Berman plenty of potential evidence to drag into the light of day.
Tort lawyers like these are a uniquely vicious species, especially against industries with deep pockets that are selling dangerous products, and lying about it.
The tobacco industry deceived the public, government and media for decades about the dangerous side effects of using their product. Ring a bell? A series of public and private lawsuits against Big Tobacco have so far extracted about $10 billion annually in the US alone in settlements to pay for burdens of smoking on the health care system.
The difference is that Big Oil makes Big Tobacco look like a corner store. The fossil fuel industry worldwide is worth about $8 trillion annually. That is five to six times the size of the next biggest industrial sector – cars. Corporate pockets don’t get any deeper than that.
Potential legal settlements in future climate change lawsuits might be astronomically larger than comparatively puny tobacco settlements. The former chief economist of the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern estimates that unabated climate change could shrink the global economy by up 20%. That works out to about $12 trillion each year. Those are the kind of numbers that make any tort lawyer lick their chops.
The irony of Big Oil’s propaganda campaign being their undoing is rich indeed. Keep an eye on this small but important lawsuit hailing from a tiny village in Alaska. Things could get interesting.