A group of sixteen municipalities in Puerto Rico filed a first-of-its-kind class-action lawsuit in federal court against twelve oil companies, including some of the largest oil companies out there. The towns claim that the likes of ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron colluded to suppress evidence of climate change that has impacted the island — including devastating Hurricane Maria back in 2017.
The municipalities accused the oil companies of conspiring to conceal the role of fossil fuels in climate change. The lawsuit alleges the companies spent billions of dollars on a “fraudulent marketing scheme” to convince people their fossil fuel-based products didn’t alter the climate, despite them knowing the consequences of carbon pollution. Their moral argument is similar to what has already been proven: oil companies have known about greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change for decades but they lied and tried to hide this fact.
But whether or not they’re right in principle or they have a legal case is not the same thing. Climate litigation is still a relatively new topic and there are few precedents, though they’re starting to build up recently.
The global average temperature has already increased by 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times, triggering a wide array of consequences on the planet. The “twelve oil giants” produced over 40% of the emissions between 1965 and 2017, according to the lawsuit, and were aware emissions were linked with stronger weather effects.
According to the lawsuit, evidence of the conspiracy goes back to 1989, when the oil companies formed the Global Climate Coalition, a corporation to “influence, advertise and promote” their interests by giving false information to the public. The rival companies allegedly conspired for a common purpose using a propaganda machine.
To do this, the oil giants created an action plan in 1998 to mislead consumers that climate change wasn’t happening and that there was no scientific consensus on the role of fossil fuels behind it, the lawsuit reads. In other words, it was a climate change denial plan, which provided a road map for an enterprise that’s still functioning today.
In other words, they’ve deceived Puerto Rico and the world to get everyone to delay climate action, and we’re still seeing the effects of this today.
Climate change and Puerto Rico
Marc Grossman, a partner at Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman, a firm representing the municipalities, said Puerto Rico “was hit by a perfect storm and is the ultimate victim of global warming.” Meanwhile, Shell spokesperson Anna Arata said climate change needs a “society-wide” approach instead of being discussed in court.
Puerto Rico has become a “canary in the coal mine” for the impacts of climate change, the lawsuit claims, citing the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, which said the island was the single country most affected by climate change. This is because of the warmer waters around Puerto Rico, which have intensified the winds linked with tropical storms.
“While Puerto Rico is the ultimate victim and the first victim, it is not the last,” said Grossman in a statement. “We are investigating claims by municipalities all over the world coming to the realization that they, along with the rest of the planet, were duped by the fossil fuel industry and now live in grave danger of being the next Puerto Rico.”
The plaintiffs are towns and cities in Puerto Rico that were hit by two powerful hurricanes in September 2017, Irma and Maria, which led to thousands of deaths, food shortages, infrastructure damage, and the longest blackout in US history. The damages were the consequence of acts of omission of the fossil fuel companies, they argued in the lawsuit.
Climate change litigation is growing in importance every year, with dozens of municipalities across the US having already sued fossil fuel companies. Globally, the number of climate change-related cases has more than doubled since 2015, bringing the total number of cases to over 2,000, according to an estimate by the London School of Economics.