In the past few years, a growing number of lawsuits have transformed the vague concept of climate liability into a burgeoning legal trend, and today we launch the Climate Docket, a site dedicated to bringing you all the news of those lawsuits. As a non-profit news organization, we’ll bring you coverage of the suits as well as related political and legislative issues.
These lawsuits have the potential to change how the country tackles climate change: instead of an intractable dilemma involving partisan legislation, regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency, it frames the issue as a matter of simple liability. The fossil fuel industry is the overwhelming driver of global warming—and research has shown the industry has known this for more than 40 years and worked to obscure this fact to the public—the plaintiff communities believe it should help pay for the very real damage it causes.
Since 2017, more than a dozen of these climate lawsuits have been filed by municipalities and one state (Rhode Island, so far) against the fossil fuel industry to hold companies accountable for their role in climate change and its costly impacts.
These communities have begun to succeed in steering cases to state courts, the venue they believe give them the best chance for success. Last week, the latest of those jurisdictional victories came when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that a group of lawsuits filed by California communities should be heard in the state courts where they were filed.
Rhode Island, a group of Colorado communities and Baltimore have also convinced federal judges their liability suits belong in state courts.
The lawsuits have sparked furious pushback from the industry and its allies, including trade groups and many Republican state attorneys general. They argue that courts should have no role in tackling climate change, that it should be left to the legislative and executive branches of government. This argument has been successful in the past, particularly in federal court, but the legal tide appears to be shifting.
The fossil fuel industry is also trying to shield itself from facing liability in other ways, including lobbying for liability waivers from the federal and state governments. Such a provision was initially included in a well-publicized carbon tax proposal, the Baker-Schultz plan, that the industry threw its support behind. Oil giants and other high-emitting companies have proposed that their support for the modest legislative proposals being put forth to tackle carbon emissions should shield them from lawsuits.
These are the issues that Climate Docket will cover, without editorializing or advocating. We will have no opinion pieces, just news stories with information from both sides of the issue.
The editorial team will be spearheaded by journalist Karen Savage, who has been covering the issue since the launch of our predecessor site, Climate Liability News, in 2017, and has recently been contributing to Drilled News.