Call for Change: In October, a special report by the Los Angeles Times, as well as reporting by PBS Frontline and InsideClimate, found internal memos that indicated Exxon Mobil had duped the public about the contributions of greenhouse gases to global warming since at least 1989.
The reports led two congressmen to request that the company be prosecuted under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act for propagating misinformation, much in the same way that cigarette manufacturers were charged in the 1990s for downplaying the risks of smoking.
Held to Account: Since then, the State of New York has taken similar action, but a different tack—investigating the company under the state’s Martin Act, which gives the attorney general broad powers to ferret out financial fraud, according to The New York Times.
That investigation, launched in early November will focus on determining if the oil giant lied to investors about the risks climate change might have on business prospects, but also look at whether Exxon misled the public. While not as far reaching as a federal RICO investigation, legal experts have speculated that other states might join the fray to create just as much damage.
“This could open up years of litigation and settlements in the same way that tobacco litigation did, also spearheaded by attorneys general,” Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia School of Law, told the Times. “In some ways, the theory is similar—that the public was misled about something dangerous to health. Whether the same smoking guns will emerge, we don’t know yet.”
On the flip side of the docket, Exxon has inserted itself in a case filed by 21 kids against the U.S. Government. The complaint—filed by Our Children’s Trust and supported by climate scientist James Hansen—claims that federal government’s failure to address climate change “has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, and has failed to protect essential public trust resources.”
Industry groups representing Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell, and Koch Industries, have filed to be considered as intervenors on the side of the government, citing that the “lawsuit is ‘extraordinary’ and ‘a direct threat to [their] businesses’ and that, if the kids win, ‘massive societal changes’ and an ‘unprecedented restructuring of the economy’ could result,” according to Slate.
Picking Up the Tab: It will be a while before the true impacts of such litigation are known, but the trend definitely seems to point toward those in positions of power taking more responsibility for actions that negatively impact the environment—and that’s not limited to gas and oil companies.
Legal experts have speculated that New York’s pursuit of Exxon puts all corporations on notice, and indeed a similar case against coal company Peabody Energy supports that. But they’re not the only ones who should take heed, according the Edward Thomas of the Natural Hazards Mitigation Association.
Governments and decision makers on all levels are increasingly being held accountable by the courts for their actions and inactions, Thomas writes with Laurie Mazur of the Island Press Resilience Projects. It’s the beginning of what he calls “an important shift in the prevailing legal winds.”
“More courts are holding people to account for failure to prevent harm,” they write in Governing. “Increasingly, corporate and civic leaders face stiff civil—and potentially…criminal—penalties when they endanger others. It's a shift that has important implications for local decision makers... As our largely ill-prepared cities and towns confront an uncertain and changing climate, those decision-makers may be held accountable for development that puts people in harm's way.”