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Lawsuits rise against Big Oil

While Washington dithers, the courthouse could become the next battleground against climate change. San Mateo and Marin counties, along with San Diego County’s Imperial Beach, filed lawsuits Monday against 37 oil, gas and coal companies, accusing them of ramping up extraction of fossil fuels for decades even though they knew the resulting carbon pollution would have devastating effects on the planet.

To anyone who followed the long legal fight against Big Tobacco, the arguments have a familiar ring. The plaintiffs claim the defendants:

•Have known for 50 years that their products contribute to global warming and “those impacts could be catastrophic and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would not be reversible.”

•Despite that knowledge, the companies engaged in a “coordinated, multifront effort” to discredit scientific evidence and created public doubt about the cause and danger of climate change.

•At the same time, they profited from “a massive increase in the extraction and consumption of oil, coal and natural gas.”

The lawsuits from the three coastal areas contend that they already are experiencing negative effects from rising seas, and are bracing for far more severe impacts in the coming decades. San Mateo County’s lawsuit, for example, notes that it has spent millions of dollars to study and mitigate the effects of climate change. The threat extends to its sewer systems, beaches, parks and roads, and various government services.

According to the lawsuits, those 37 defendants — including big industry names such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, Citgo, Marathon and others — accounted for 20.3 percent of greenhouse emissions between 1965 and 2015.

If the history of Big Tobacco is any guide, these lawsuits will not be easy to win. Tobacco first started fending off lawsuits in the 1950s, and was aggressive and successful in defending against them by arguing that smokers lit up at their own risks and, besides, smoking was not necessarily the only cause of cancer. Expect the fossil fuels industry to fight back with similar logic: The lawsuits themselves concede that four-fifths of carbon emissions came from other sources, and that the decisions of elected officials, automakers and consumers themselves contributed to demand.

By the 1990s, as more evidence of Big Tobacco’s duplicity became known, the legal landscape shifted against the industry.

This planet cannot afford to wait decades for industry and consumer behavior, and government policies — or legal outcomes — to respond. The best hope is that these lawsuits will provide a warning shot that will compel all 37 companies to work more assertively to address the global challenge their products helped create.

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