California Cities Hit Oil Giants With Lawsuit Over Rising Sea Levels

Three California communities have filed cases against major oil companies, holding them accountable for the rising sea levels threatening homes and properties.

A collage of major oil company logos including Chevron, Total, Mobil, BP, and Shell

California is at war with several of the world’s biggest oil, gas, and coal companies because of rising sea levels surrounding coastal communities.

According to The Guardian, the Bay Area's San Mateo and Marin counties along with San Diego's Imperial Beach are taking legal action against 37 major carbon producers, which include household names, such as Shell, Chevron, Statoil, Exxon, and Total.

The cities' complaints claim that greenhouse gas emissions from the carbon producers’ practices throughout the last five decades have significantly contributed to the quickly-rising sea level which is expected to endanger residents’ lives and cause billions of dollars in damages to properties and businesses.

“This [is] an unprecedented moment for climate change litigation,” said Sophie Marjanac of campaigning lawyers Client Earth, which is monitoring the case.

The cities lawsuit argues that the companies “have known for nearly 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products has a significant impact on the Earth’s climate and sea levels.” However, instead of figuring out how to reduce their impacts, they collectively participated in a “co-ordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their knowledge of these threats.”

The amount of damage that the rising sea levels could cause to these coastal cities is far too steep for them to handle on their own, particularly Imperial Beach, which is a low-income community.

“As the lowest-income, highest poverty-rate city in San Diego County, we have no capacity to pay for the extensive adaptation measures,” Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina reportedly said after noting that up to 30 percent of his city could soon be negatively impacted by climate change.

In Marin County, flooding could cause more than $15.5 billion in property damage in addition to affecting tens of thousands of residents. Potential property damage in San Mateo is estimated to be around $39 billion, and the rise in sea level is expected to affect more than 100,000 residents, according to a report by the California Climate Change Center.

“This lawsuit is intended to shift those costs back where they belong — on the fossil fuel companies,” said Marin County Supervisor Kate Sears.

While Exxon, Chevron, BP, and Total haven’t issued statements on the legal action as of yet, a spokeswoman for Shell explained their position.

“We believe climate change is a complex societal challenge that should be addressed through sound government policy and cultural change to drive low-carbon choices for businesses and consumers, not by the courts,” she reportedly said.

There is an obstacle this lawsuit faces, which is the fact that previous legal cases made against big oil companies have been dismissed on the grounds that climate change impact is a political issue, not a judicial one.

The Guardian points to the small Alaskan town of Kivalina as an example. Town officials filed a lawsuit against oil giants back in 2008, seeking $400 million to relocate their village amid the threat of rising sea levels, yet they were not victorious. 

Although Shell and some other oil companies have begun taking strides toward phasing out fossil fuels, much of the environmental damage has already been done.

Additionally, their initiatives are not immediate; the transition will occur over an extensive period of time, which leaves plenty of space and opportunity for more damage to be done.

Meanwhile, residents in these coastal California cities are forced to make life or death decisions about uprooting their lives before disaster strikes.

Banner/Thumbnail Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Kglavin

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