Who pays for the damage caused by climate change?

Three Colorado communities are suing to make oil companies open their wallets.

 

Marco Simons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of NewTowncarShare News. He is general counsel at EarthRights International, a nonprofit environmental law firm that is providing legal support for this lawsuit.


This April, a town and two Colorado counties sued two fossil fuel companies on the grounds that the companies need to help pay the costs of climate change. Boulder County, San Miguel County and the city of Boulder are not seeking to halt oil production, and they are not looking to lay all the costs of climate change at the feet of those two companies. All they ask is that those companies pay their fair share toward remedying a problem that the companies knew existed, and which they helped create.

Colorado National Guardsmen and Boulder County authorities help evacuate residents of Lyons, Colorado, during severe flooding in September 2013. Extreme weather events will likely become more common in the coming decades thanks to climate change.

Here’s why the decision to sue makes sense. The oil companies in question — Exxon Mobil and Suncor — have long known about the harm that fossil fuel use causes. As far back as 1968, the American Petroleum Institute — the industry’s largest trade association, of which Exxon is a member —  that, due to carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, “significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic changes,” and that there was “no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe.” Further internal reports throughout the 1970s reinforced these concerns.

Unfortunately, these companies chose to disregard that knowledge in order to continue profiting from fossil fuels. Exactly like the tobacco industry, they participated in disinformation campaigns to spread doubt about climate change and discredit the scientists who they knew were telling the truth. They also .

Exxon and Suncor have now admitted that climate change is real and that their own activities are a major contributor to the problem. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms that fossil fuel use accounted for nearly 80 percent of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions between 1970 and 2010. Exxon and Suncor are two of the world’s most substantial contributors to climate change.

Yet both companies plan to increase their fossil fuel production, all while sticking communities like Boulder, Colorado, with the bill for the cleanup. A report done for Boulder County, for example, estimated that its climate change costs will reach at least $100 million dollars over the next few decades. The altered climate brought about by unchecked fossil fuel use has severe consequences for all of Colorado, as in the coming decades wildfires and droughts are expected to become more severe, air quality will diminish, water will become scarcer, and extreme weather events will become more common.

In November 2013, costly damage caused by the flooding that ripped through Boulder County, Colorado, two months earlier was still visible.

Many county and city leaders are justifiably worried about having to prepare their communities for the serious consequences of climate change. As San Miguel County Commissioner Hilary Cooper explained, “We are a small rural county dependent on tourism, farming and ranching. A natural disaster here could wipe out our reserves.”

Communities can take measures to reduce their vulnerability to climate impacts. They can protect against flooding, and they can expand wildfire buffer zones. They can help farmers to find new crops that are more resilient to heat waves, drought and pests.

In fact, Exxon itself has taken measures to prepare for climate change, such as . It’s only fair that Exxon should share the costs when Colorado communities have to take similar measures.

Even if these communities were to reduce their own carbon footprint to zero, climate impacts are still inevitable. Dangerous levels of greenhouse gases are already trapped in the atmosphere. The costs to local taxpayers are mounting.

At its core, these communities’ lawsuit against Exxon and Suncor raises questions of fairness. The communities themselves encourage the use of renewable energy, but the fossil fuel industry has acted, and is acting, recklessly.

“Our communities and our taxpayers should not shoulder the cost of climate change adaptation alone,” said Suzanne Jones, mayor of the city of Boulder. “These oil companies need to pay their fair share.”

Now, the three communities are asking for a jury to weigh the evidence and determine the extent to which the companies are responsible. We are confident that the courts will allow a Colorado jury to decide how much Exxon and Suncor should pay for the climate impacts that are now affecting Colorado’s counties and towns.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of NewTowncarShare News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • 2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • The Center for Western Priorities (CWP) is a nonpartisan communications and policy center that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and...
  • near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] www.arrowreal.com (Country Homes).
  • Western Colorado Alliance brings people together across western Colorado to build grassroots power through community organizing and leadership development. Together we work for a future...
  • Colorado Farm to Table is looking for a full-time energetic, creative Executive Director to lead our team in Salida.
  • Join the publisher, editors, writers and staff of NewTowncarShare for the annual Holiday Open House. Refreshments, food, door prizes and merriment. Thursday, December 6,...