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Washington NGO Puts Legal Case Against Fossils All in One Place

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It’s not quite a lawsuit-in-a-box, but a new report from the Washington, DC-based Center for International Environmental Law comes close. “For anyone who wants to sue oil companies over climate change,” quipped E&E News [subscription only] in its coverage [1], “[CIEL] has a road map to do it.”

According to [2] CIEL itself, Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis is a one-stop synthesis of “years of research exposing what the oil industry and other major fossil fuel producers knew about climate change, when they knew it, and what they did about it.”

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For the legal neophyte to the subject, the report also helpfully “evaluates that evidence in light of fundamental principles of legal responsibility,” and articulates the lines of argument which demonstrate that “major carbon producers can and should be held accountable for climate impacts.”

Demanding that fossil producers be held liable for the cost of losses or adaptation to climate change caused by the use of their products has become increasingly popular, with communities in Canada [4] and the United States [5] as well as small Pacific Island states [6] launching claims in one form or another.

CIEL’s 42-page brief finds that oil and gas companies were aware of the potential climate risk of their products “as early as the 1950s, and were repeatedly warned of those risks from the 1960s onward.” It documents “how major oil companies had the opportunity and capacity to reduce those risks. Instead, major oil and gas producers worked, individually and in concert, to undermine public confidence in climate science and in the need for climate action.”

That, the authors assert, created a liability for fossil producers, for “knowing of climate risks linked to their products and failing to take action to avoid or reduce those risks—either by eliminating them or by properly warning consumers, regulators, and the public about them.”

It also notes, ominously for potential defendants, that climate scientists are “increasingly able to attribute [7] historical carbon and methane emissions to a handful of private companies [8] that can be sued.”

“Over the seven decades in this timeline, liability may attach to different companies for different theories at different times,” says CIEL staff attorney Steven Feit. “However, looking at the evidence as a whole, over time, and across the industry, the answer to whether big oil is responsible is, ‘Yes’.”