As scientific evidence accumulates on the destructive impact of carbon-dioxide emissions, a handful of lawyers are beginning to bring suits against the major contributors to climate change. Their arguments, so far, have not been well received; the courts have been understandably reluctant to hold a specific group of defendants responsible for a problem for which everyone on Earth bears some responsibility. Lawsuits in California, Mississippi, and New York have been dismissed by judges who say a ruling would require them to balance the perils of greenhouse gases against the benefits of fossil fuels—something best handled by legislatures.
But Susman and Berman have been intrigued by the possibilities. Both have added various environmental and energy cases to their portfolios over the years, and Susman recently taught a class on climate-change litigation at the University of Houston Law Center. Over time, the two trial lawyers have become convinced that they have the playbook necessary to win big cases against the country’s largest emitters. It’s the same game plan that brought down Big Tobacco. And in Kivalina—where the link between global warming and material damage is strong—they believe they’ve found the perfect challenger.
In February, Berman and Susman—along with two attorneys who have previously worked on behalf of the village, and Matt Pawa, an environmental lawyer specializing in global warming—filed suit in federal court against 24 oil, coal, and electric companies, claiming that their emissions are partially responsible for the coastal destruction in Kivalina. More important, the suit also accuses eight of the firms (American Electric Power, BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Duke Energy, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, and Southern Company) of conspiring to cover up the threat of man-made climate change, in much the same way the tobacco industry tried to conceal the risks of smoking—by using a series of think tanks and other organizations to falsely sow public doubt in an emerging scientific consensus.
This second charge arguably eliminates the need for a judge to determine how much greenhouse-gas production—from refining fossil fuel and burning it to produce energy—is acceptable. “You’re not asking the court to evaluate the reasonableness of the conduct,” Berman says. “You’re asking a court to evaluate if somebody conspired to lie.” Monetary damages to Kivalina need not be sourced exclusively to the defendants’ emissions; they would derive from bad-faith efforts to prevent the enactment of public measures that might have slowed the warming.
Berman and Susman aren’t alone in drawing parallels between the actions of the defendants and those of the tobacco industry. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group, has accused ExxonMobil of adopting the cigarette manufacturers’ strategy of covertly establishing “front” groups, promoting writers who exaggerate uncertainties in the science, and improperly cultivating ties within the government. The oil company, it says, has “funneled approximately $16 million to carefully chosen organizations that promote disinformation on global warming.”
“The strategy to foster doubt is very effective,” says Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies at the University of California at San Diego. Oreskes is writing a book on the similar methods that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries have used to challenge unwelcome scientific evidence. “If ‘nobody knows,’” she says, “then nobody is to blame. If ‘nobody knows,’ then how can we do anything about it?”