Some U.S. cities have had enough. After torrential storms, ravaging wildfires and devastating hurricanes -- all of which we’ve seen steadily rise in the last decade, not to mention experienced tenfold in 2017 alone -- cities from both coasts are planning to sue big oil companies for their role in the consequences of global warming. In an effort known as impact litigation -- lawsuits with the expressed intent to bring about societal change -- major cities are beginning the fight to hold oil companies accountable. Among the major contributors of rising temperatures: BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. Much like the responsibility these companies have been held accountable for in their role of oil spills, cities are beginning to recognize the profound impact oil companies have on everyday communities and their economic livelihood.
The lawsuits stem from cities such as San Francisco to Santa Cruz to Oakland to New York City. All are seeking billions of dollars in damages. With the majority of Americans living in or near coastal cities, it is being argued that when it comes to climate change, population density leads to more deaths and higher costs of property damage, creating a major rift in the U.S. economy. The lawsuits will also cite climate scientists using attribution science. Known in the scientific community as extreme event attribution, this specialized field of study is relatively new and largely came about following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Attribution science seeks to put a finger on the exact level of human responsibility when it comes to climate change. Through the lens of attribution science, atmospheric experts can also study individual storms and their relation to human responsibility instead of only studying trends over time.
Here’s Where Dollars Go To Fight Climate Change
Dealing with weather-related disasters in practical terms always comes at both a financial and socioeconomic cost. Depending on a state’s vulnerability to a specific type of disaster, monies are set aside and sometimes companies and landowners are taxed to help aid in cleanup and restoration efforts. Based on the severity of weather-related circumstances, federal funding can also be made available to assist states that are stretched thin, but such assistance is limited. To determine where funds will ultimately come from, state lawmakers are tasked with designing a budget that can weather even the toughest circumstances. Sometimes, even the best budgets don’t entirely cover cost of damages.
San Francisco and Oakland were among the first to take up lawsuits, pointing to recent wildfires as examples of severe depredation to both Northern and Southern California this past year. Northern California racked up an estimated $9.4 billion in damages, significantly cutting into the state’s budget intended for tackling wildfires.
Climate change also contributes to rising sea levels. Under warm conditions, seawater expands and takes up more space in the ocean basin. It’s also worth mentioning ice cover over land. With rising global temperatures, the ice melts create runoff in areas that would otherwise remain dry. Not only do both of these damage properties, but they also ruin wildlife habitats in some areas leading to rescue efforts and volunteer support, which also carry with it undetermined price tags.
After waters receded from the powerful category 4 Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys, the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation reported a whopping $5.8 billion in insured losses. Some 689,000 residential claims were filed along with 51,396 commercial property claims. Numbers were as of November 2017. The hurricane-prone state has put into place a pool of monies known as the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. For cleanup efforts following Hurricane Irma, the state said it had spent about $650 million. It is expected to pay upwards of $5 billion in claims to private insurers.
But some point to the perils of yesteryear as a window into what has become our stark reality.
What Superstorm Sandy Revealed
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy came ashore off the New York and New Jersey coasts. Low lying communities made several cities all the more susceptible especially with rising sea levels that helped the storm cause significant damage to residential properties, some of which six years later have yet to be fixed. Citizens expressed their frustrations when they took the streets last fall in protest pointing out that in some areas, redevelopment projects were coming along faster than cleanup efforts, further displacing many area residents. For his part, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has stated $145 million will go toward elevating property along the city’s shoreline and the construction of sea walls.
At the time, scientists were hesitant to point the finger at climate change. After all, Sandy was a unique storm in that it abruptly changed course, carrying with it lunar high tides and an oddly shaped dip in the jet stream. Components such as this are unusual for a hurricane which generally seems to follow a pre-destined path of destruction. Yet, years later and using weather models equipped to pinpoint the exact ingredient of a “perfect storm,” Sandy seemed to shed light on what has long been suspect. The a-ha moment came when last year Kevin Trenberth, a researcher with the National Center for Atmospheric Research state the obvious, “the environment in which all these storms, including Superstorm Sandy is occurring, is fundamentally different than it used to be.”
Once again, human induced activity was outed as the major cause of atrocious storms. Only this time, cities are taking matters into their own hands and holding the feet of big oil companies to the fire.