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 High Country 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 — received a report warning 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 funded campaigns to oppose international efforts to address climate change.

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 adapting its own offshore facilities to protect against sea-level rise. 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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...