By Karen Savage
Charleston, S.C., has become the first southern city to file a climate liability lawsuit to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change deception, impacts and costs.
The city filed the lawsuit on Wednesday against ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Chevron, Marathon, and several other fossil fuel companies, alleging they have known for decades that their products drive climate change but deliberately have deceived the public, press and policy makers about that harm.
“As this lawsuit shows, these companies have known for more than 50 years that their products were going to cause the worst flooding the world has seen since Noah built the Ark,” Mayor John Tecklenburg said. “Instead of warning us, they covered up the truth and turned our flooding problems into their profits.”
Sea levels are expected to rise an additional 2 to 3 feet by 2070. That will not only increase the city’s vulnerability during storms, but will exacerbate high tide, or sunny day flooding, which happened 89 times during 2019, according to Tecklenburg.
“By the year 2050, it’s estimated that occurrence could happen every other day,” Tecklenburg said, adding it will take an estimated $2 billion to address all the stormwater projects needed to protect Charleston residents.
The suit, which was filed in state court, includes state law claims of public and private nuisance, strict liability and negligent failure to warn, trespass, and violations of South Carolina’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.
“We’ve been measuring sea level here in the harbor of Charleston for over a hundred years. During that time, sea level rise has risen over a foot. In the last 20 years, with the climate change that’s occurred, and mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels, the rate of increase has quadrupled,” Tecklenburg said at a press conference at the Battery, a landmark seawall and historic park in downtown Charleston.
“That’s why we’re going through major expense here to elevate the Low Battery and eventually we’ll have to protect the entire perimeter of the peninsula and other parts of our city,” Tecklenburg said, as construction continued in the background.
Flooding and other effects of climate change exacerbated by fossil fuel companies are having a disproportionate impact on Charleston’s communities of color and low income communities, attorneys for the city wrote in the complaint, adding that residents often lack the resources, including reliable transportation, “to prepare for extreme weather in advance and will need to use a bigger proportion of their resources to rebuild in the aftermath.”
Even lesser storms, which may not require evacuation, can impact the city’s neighborhoods, councilmember Perry K. Waring, chairman of Charleston’s public works committee, said.
Rising seas, combined with extreme rainfall events, or rain bombs place an enormous strain on the storm water drainage system, he explained.
“When sea level rises and a rain bomb occurs, that pipe is filled with water, so it backs up—it’s like dominoes, it backs up from that river or that creek into your street, into your neighborhood and maybe even into your home,” Waring said, adding that the city is currently engaged in hundreds of millions of dollars of storm water drainage projects.
“It’s not fair to the citizens in Charleston that have to bear the burden, the total cost of these improvements, that are needed because of sea level rise,” Waring said.
The fossil fuel companies say Charleston’s suit, like dozens of climate change-related lawsuits filed against them by municipalities across the country, are meritless.
“Legal proceedings like this waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money and do nothing to advance meaningful actions that reduce the risks of climate change,” Exxon spokesperson Casey Norton said in a statement, repeating comments made by the company when Hoboken, N.J., filed a similar lawsuit against it last week.
“We are working to find real solutions to climate change that are undermined by special-interest-promoted lawsuits designed to punish a few companies in one industry who lawfully deliver affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy,” Chevron spokesperson Sean Comey said in a statement.
“There is no evidence Chevron misled the public about climate change. Those claims are false. When plaintiffs were forced to justify those allegations in court, they could not,” Comey said, referring to a 5-hour “climate tutorial” on the current state of climate science held by U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who was considering the fate of suits filed by Oakland and San Francisco at the time. Alsup eventually dismissed the suits, however, the suits have since been revived by the Ninth Circuit.
Charleston officials maintain their claims are supported by scientific evidence and say the fossil fuel companies are responsible for the city’s climate crisis-related harms.
“What we want is these companies to be fair in addressing the damages, frankly, that they know they caused,” Waring said.