In a decision that has been hailed as a “critical victory” for climate litigation, the US Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals by major oil companies Chevron, Exxon, and Suncor Energy, targeted by five separate state lawsuits, to move a growing wave of climate lawsuits from state courts to federal courts.
The lawsuits, filed by the state of Rhode Island and municipalities in California, Colorado, Hawaii and Maryland, alleged that the fossil fuel giants knew about the dangers of global warming back in the 1980s but failed to take any action.
In early 2023, Vatan Hüzeir, a climate activist and author of “Dirty Pearls”, revealed – by compiling over 200 pieces of evidence – that Shell knew about the impact of its products as early as the 1980s.
A 1989 confidential Shell Group planning session exposed that, at that time, researchers had already warned the company of “more violent weather,” “more storms, more droughts, more deluges,” and recommended a “[s]hift from coal to natural gas, and to non-fossil fuels.”
States and cities now want to hold the energy giants responsible for their knowledge of the effect of their products and are seeking financial compensation to deal with the impacts of climate change.
Local governments are funded by taxpayers, and the cost of measures to address climate change is often borne by them. Aaron Brockett, mayor of Boulder, Colorado, spoke out on the issue:
“Oil companies are making record profits while our planet continues to warm. It’s only fair that the companies that profit from irresponsible actions compensate communities for the harm they cause.”
The five initial lawsuits were ruled in favour of the local governments, bringing oil giants fruitlessly to the Supreme Court’s doorstep, where the highest court in the land refused to hear their appeals.
What does that mean?
The oil giants lost in lower courts, and the US Supreme Court’s decision means that future cases will now be heard in state courts, which are considered more favourable to plaintiffs as they allow cases to be heard in front of a jury.
President of the Center for Climate Integrity, Richard Wiles, credited the Supreme Court for letting oil giants fend for themselves:
“Big Oil companies have been desperate to avoid trials in state courts, where they will be forced to defend their climate lies in front of juries, and today the Supreme Court declined to bail them out.”
The decision marks an important precedent for climate litigation and could help determine whether such lawsuits must be waged at the state or federal level in the future.
The Biden administration positioned itself against Supreme Court appeals, stating that no federal questions have been raised in the lawsuits.
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This is a huge win for climate activists, as oil giants are much less likely to win in front of a jury than in Washington, the lobbying capital of the US, where they hold much more sway.
The Supreme Court found that the lawsuits were not under federal jurisdiction but rather a state one. Conversely, the oil companies argued that greenhouse gas issues are “inherently federal,” demanding Supreme Court hearings where they could possibly shift focus to national energy needs.
“We will continue to fight these suits, which are a waste of time and resources and do nothing to address climate change,” a spokesperson for ExxonMobil said.
Dr Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) applauded the ruling:
“The supreme court’s decision today is a significant victory for climate justice and climate lawsuits filed across the United States and around the world. The communities involved in this case suffered unimaginable losses due, in large part, to the recklessness and greed of the fossil fuel industry, and now they are one step closer to having their day in court.”
The Supreme Court’s decision is an indication that the US justice system recognises the role of fossil fuel companies in contributing to the climate crisis and that they should be held accountable for the harm caused.
The decision will likely embolden other local governments to file similar lawsuits, and more cases are expected to proceed across the United States. As the impacts of climate change continue to escalate, the decision could have far-reaching implications for the fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive industries globally.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Supreme Court Featured Photo Credit: Ian Hutchinson