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Big Oil's Victory in Climate Suit Doesn't Matter

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Remember when we thought the courts were going to save us from climate change? That was a special time. Then Monday happened. A district court judge in California tossed out a lawsuit that San Francisco and Oakland filed against some of the world’s largest oil companies in 2017 to force them to cough up some cash to help pay for the impacts from climate change.

That was, well, a bummer. Concern sprang that Judge William Alsup’s decision would set a precedent for similar cases around the country. But Alsup’s decision is only the first of many. The decisions around other U.S. cases—there are suits in Colorado, one right here in New York City where I’m at, and even more in California outside the Bay Area—aren’t legally bound it, said Michael Burger, the executive director for the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.


For San Francisco and Oakland, meanwhile, the opportunity to appeal Alsup’s decision is still there. Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker told Earther in an email the city is seriously considering it as the team continues to review the judge’s order.


San Francisco’s team is similarly down but not out: “This is obviously not the ruling we wanted, but this doesn’t mean the case is over,” said John Coté, the communications director for the city attorney, in an email to Earther.

If an appeal did happen, it would head straight to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. There, the real fun begins.

A decision out of the Ninth Circuit holds the potential to nullify Judge Alsup’s order altogether. This case was argued in federal court, right? Well, a different judge already sent back other California cases to the state district court. So there’s disagreement within California about whether this type of litigation falls under state or federal jurisdiction.

“The Ninth Circuit will be asked to weigh that particular part,” Burger told Earther. “That’ll have applicability to other cases.”


In the event the appeals court decides this litigation belongs in state courts, Alsup’s decision won’t mean a damn thing because he didn’t have the jurisdiction to rule in the first place. That type of speculation, however, is fairly premature. All this litigation is still in the baby stages, explained David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, who’s consulted with the attorneys involved in the Bay Area cases.


“This is a multi-year, multi-state, multi-jurisdictional process,” he told Earther. This first court decision provides the first data point for plaintiffs. Sure, Bookbinder would’ve liked to have seen Judge Alsup rule differently, but “that’s the nature of the beast,” he said.

The attorneys on this case knew they were in for a long game when they filed these lawsuits. Regardless, they see the suits as necessary. “Local governments who are on the frontlines of dealing with the impacts of climate change are already incurring costs and are going to incur much larger costs due to climate change,” Bookbinder said.


Those governments can choose to either charge the taxpayer or the companies believed to be responsible for this mess. And let’s not beat around the bush: Oil companies are a big reason “climate denial” is a thing at all. Like Big Tobacco tried to claim cigarettes aren’t addictive, Big Oil tried to claim the science on climate change wasn’t sound when its own scientists confirmed how catastrophic it could be. Denial and obfuscation is part of the reason cities and counties leading the suits believe these companies need to pay up.

Organizers for clean air and equality in the Bay Area agree. Amee Raval, a policy and research associate at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network based in Oakland, is all for holding these oil companies accountable for their role in climate change. She noted that the money from these cases could mean life-or-death for low-income families and communities of color that are ill-equipped to handle severe flooding or sea level rise.


“We know our communities are most vulnerable because low-income communities of color have the least resources to respond,” Raval told Earther. Plus, in both Oakland and San Francisco, she explained, black communities have historically lived closer to the shore (and on flat land) while white affluent communities have taken to the hills.

“To say the public has to pay for something that a few large corporations are largely accountable for, that’s inequity,” Raval went on. “That’s injustice to us.”


Alsup made some good points in his ruling: that climate change is real, and that the White House and Congress are responsible for addressing it. In more just and fair times, perhaps cities and counties could turn to their president or representatives on the Hill. However, these are not normal times. “We know we can’t rely on this current administration,” Raval said.

It’s up to us, the people, to do something about climate change. These lawsuits are one piece of that puzzle.