Yesterday John Schwartz’s article in the NY Times, “Courts as Battlefields in Climate Fight”, discussed the lawsuit that the tiny Inupiat village of Kivalina, Alaska, has filed against big greenhouse-gas producing industries. Kivalina is located on a barrier island. The village is accusing big oil,coal, and electric companies of contributing to the erosion of their shoreline; the ice that used to protect the shore during winter months doesn’t appear any more. Their complaint states, in part:
Global warming is destroying Kivalina and the village thus must be relocated soon or be abandoned and cease to exist. Relocating will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and is an urgent matter. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Government Accountability Office have concluded that Kivalina must be relocated due to global warming and have estimated the cost to be from $95 million to $400 million.
Further on, the complaint asserts (bold highlights mine) :
Each of the defendants knew or should have known of the impacts of their emissions on global warming and on particularly vulnerable communities such as coastal Alaskan villages. Despite this knowledge, defendants continued their substantial contributions to global warming. Additionally, some of the defendants, as described below, conspired to create a false scientific debate about global warming in order to deceive the public.
Besides the Kivalina case, in Mississipi Gulf Coast property owners have filed a suit alleging that industry-produced greenhouse gas emissions increased the potency of Hurricane Katrina, and in Connecticut 8 different state attorneys general joined with environmental lawyers and the City of New York to seek a court order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Swiss Re, an insurance giant, recently compared these legal cases to those that led dozens of companies in asbestos industries to file for bankruptcy, and predicted that “climate change-related liability will develop more quickly than asbestos-related claims.” Schwartz compares the Kivalina lawsuit, and the other two suits, to past legal cases that showed the link between tobacco companies and a false scientific debate that obscured and denied the health risks of smoking.
If the climate-change cases even get to the discovery stage, and if the energy industry possesses embarrassing e-mail messages and memorandums similar to those that proved devastating to tobacco companies, Mr. Tierney said, “it’s a hammer” that could drive industries to the negotiating table.
Scott H. Segal, a partner at the law firm Bracewell and Patterson , which represents energy industry interests, joked in 2004 that such cases brought “new meaning to the term ‘nuisance lawsuit.’ ”
I doubt that they are smiling now. But unfortunately, the old adage that the one who laughs last laughs longest doesn’t apply here – none of us are going to be smiling as the global climate is permanently destabilized by these irresponsible industries, and our own refusal to change our fossil-fuel dependent ways.