Dismissal of San Francisco and Oakland Climate Lawsuits A Setback for Efforts to Require Fossil Fuel Companies to Pay Their Fair Share of Climate Costs

Statement by Ken Kimmell, Union of Concerned Scientists

Published Jun 26, 2018

WASHINGTON (June 26, 2018)—A federal judge yesterday dismissed lawsuits by San Francisco and Oakland that sought to hold five of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies liable for climate damages. U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that the legislative and executive branches of government, not the judiciary, are responsible for addressing climate change.

The ruling is a setback for San Francisco and Oakland taxpayers who are bearing the mounting costs of climate change-related damage in their communities, but it will not directly affect suits filed by a handful of other California municipalities, New York City, or counties in Colorado and Washington state.

Below is a statement by Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

“While we disagree with Judge Alsup’s conclusion, we agree with him that the magnitude of the climate change problem is indeed vast and urgent. According to a recent UCS analysis, San Francisco, Oakland and the six other California jurisdictions that have filed climate lawsuits can expect accelerating sea level rise that by 2045 will threaten some 8,800 homes that today represent $76 million annually in local property taxes. By the end of the century, some 52,000 homes that currently contribute $435 million in annual property taxes will be at risk.

“These communities—and many others—will need massive funding and resources to protect homes, infrastructure and livelihoods. And the future is now. Taxpayers are already footing the bill, so why shouldn’t fossil fuel companies pay a significant portion considering the role they’ve played in making the problem considerably worse.

“Fossil fuel companies are not neutral actors simply providing a product everyone demands. For decades, they marketed products that they knew to be harmful while sowing doubt about those harms and blocking policies to address those harms and develop alternatives. As early as the 1970s, ExxonMobil’s own scientists warned about the danger to climate that burning fossil fuels posed—evidence shows that other industry peers understood, as well. Rather than alert the public about these harms, the companies chose instead to launch a decades-long, multimillion-dollar campaign to spread disinformation about climate science. They could have invested in technologies and supported policies to produce energy without harmful carbon emissions, but they did not.

“In almost all large impact litigation, the courtroom doors are usually shut in the beginning, but if plaintiffs are persistent and keep knocking, the doors will open up. This was true in the fights against Jim Crow and Big Tobacco, and we expect that the same tenacity will be necessary to overcome the entrenched political and economic influence of this deep-pocketed industry, secure fair compensation for the costs our society is incurring, and advance sensible policy solutions to prevent catastrophic damage in the future.”