Column: Fossil-fuel companies that caused climate change should pay for it

EDITORIAL | ISLAND VOICES
By Marti Townsend Oct. 6, 2019

For more than 50 years, fossil fuel executives have known that their products cause climate change. Not only did they know with scientific certainty several decades ago that their products cause global warming and would lead to overheating of the planet’s climate, but they lied about it.

Hundreds of internal documents uncovered by investigative journalists reveal that fossil fuel trade associations and industry front groups intentionally misled the public about the realities of climate change. They fueled public confusion and derailed several attempts to adopt sound climate policies by spending millions of dollars on deceptive advertising, fake science and misleading talking heads.

While they were funding climate denialism to confuse the public and prevent a meaningful transition to clean energy, fossil fuel executives used real climate science to drive decisions about their own business investments. One oil company retrofitted its oil rigs in Nova Scotia to withstand more intense storms and rising sea levels due to climate change, while also funding the American Petroleum Institute’s deceptive climate denialism campaign.

At the same time, these companies also cashed in on huge taxpayer subsidies and raked in billions of dollars from customers. In 2016 alone, the fossil fuel industry enjoyed at least $20 billion in ill-gotten state and federal subsidies.

Hawaii’s situation is much more dire and expensive because of the industry’s deceptive practices. Sea level rise alone will cost Hawaii taxpayers $15 billion in public roadway relocations and $19 billion in damage to private property. This conservative estimate does not take into consideration the added expenses to us all for more intense weather events like hurricanes and droughts.

Each county will need to upgrade and relocate sewers, strengthen public disaster shelters, and protect against food shortages — important issues all made worse by climate change.

The industry executives knew. They lied. They profited. Now we are suffering. This is not right.

That is why Hawaii should do as Rhode Island and over a dozen U.S. cities have done: sue fossil fuel companies for deceptive practices and public nuisance. These corporations are a serious threat to life as we know it, and have spent billions of dollars to make it harder to kick our dependency on fossil fuels. Suing fossil fuel executives for their contribution to climate change is one key component to ensuring local people are not stuck with paying for all expenses associated with mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Hawaii has a solid track record of holding corporations accountable for their misdeeds. We did it in the 1990s when Hawaii joined dozens of states in suing the tobacco industry for its despicable contribution to the public health crisis. The tobacco industry paid $273 billion in a global settlement to state governments for much-needed public health and education programs to address smoking, addiction and treatment needs.

Today, Hawaii is suing the big pharmaceutical companies for their contribution to the opioid epidemic. A state court in Oklahoma found that Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance through false, deceptive and misleading advertising that promoted the drug as a safe pain remedy, when it was not safe — the same type of deceptive practices the fossil fuel industry has engaged in for years. Now Johnson & Johnson owes Oklahoma $572 million for drug treatment services, and other pharmaceutical giants have started negotiating large settlements to lawsuits filed by local governments.

Climate change is scary, but by confronting it head-on, Hawaii can be a master of its own destiny. We can ensure that our unique way of life adapts well, communities thrives, and our environment is protected in a climate-changed future.

By holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for its misdeeds through litigation, Hawaii can access some of the industry’s immense wealth, and offset the billions of dollars that local people would otherwise have to pay to protect ourselves from climate disruption. It is time to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the cost of climate change.

Marti Townsend is director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii.