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More Than Two Dozen Cities And States Are Suing Big Oil Over Climate Change

Honolulu has lost more than 5 miles of its famous beaches to sea level rise and storm surges. Sunny-day flooding during high tides makes many city roads impassable, and water mains for the public drinking water system are corroding from saltwater because of sea level rise.

The damage has left the city and county spending millions of dollars on repairs and infrastructure to try to adapt to the rising risks.

Future costs will almost certainly be higher. More than $19 billion in property value, at today’s dollars, is at risk by 2100 from projected sea level rise, driven by greenhouse gas emissions largely from the burning of fossil fuels. Elsewhere in Honolulu County, which covers all of Oahu, many coastal communities will be cut off or uninhabitable.

Unwilling to have their taxpayers bear the full brunt of these costs, the city and county sued Sunoco LP, Exxon Mobil Corp. and other big oil companies in 2020.

Their case—one of more than two dozen involving U.S. cities, counties and states suing the oil industry over climate change—just got a break from the U.S. Supreme Court. That has significantly increased their odds of succeeding.

Suing Over the Cost of Climate Change

At stake in all of these cases is who pays for the staggering cost of a changing climate.

Local and state governments that are suing want to hold the major oil companies responsible for the costs of responding to disasters that scientists are increasingly able to attribute to climate disruption and tie back to the fossil fuel industry. Several of the plaintiffs accuse the companies of lying to the public about their products’ risks in violation of state or local consumer protection laws that prohibit false advertising.

The governments in the Honolulu case allege that the oil companies “are directly responsible” for a substantial rise in carbon dioxide emissions that have been driving climate change. They say the companies should contribute their fair share to defray some of the costs.

The gist of Honolulu’s complaint is that the big oil companies have known for decades that their products cause climate change,

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