Comment: New York sues big oil for climate change damages

New York City is taking on Big Oil and positioning itself as a leader in the fight against climate change. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced this month that the city has filed a lawsuit against five major oil companies, to fund the rising cost of coping with climate change. De Blasio also pledged to divest the city from $5 billion in pension funds related to the fossil fuel industry, making NYC the first major US city to make such a divestment. 

The lawsuit claims that BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell had full knowledge of the damaging effects of oil and gas use on the planet, and of hiding this information from their own scientists. The five targeted energy companies are said to have deliberately ignored the warnings of climate experts. As such, the motion argues that rising temperatures and sea-levels is a result of their unlawful activity, which has caused flooding and erosion within the city limits that is tantamount to trespassing. De Blasio aims to hold these companies liable for damages, as the city’s bill for mitigating the effects of climate change is already in the billions.

The court filing, according to a report by Bloomberg, was specific in measuring the impact of the oil and gas sector on the environment. The defendants are said to be responsible “through their production, marketing and sale of fossil fuels, for over 11 percent of all the carbon and methane pollution from industrial sources that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.” It also identifies the defendants as the top five fossil fuel contributors out of the 100 producers examined, who are collectively responsible for nearly two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The mayor’s office stated that climate change is likely to be the city’s biggest challenge in decades to come. NYC’s 520-mile coastline makes it increasingly susceptible to damage by large coastal storms. Manhattan is encircled by the Hudson River, the East River and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, placing it at the mercy of powerful wave action and rising sea-levels. According to a report on NYC’s risk landscape, the coastline is already in retreat due to coastal erosion, over 70 percent of which is densely developed. Areas such as the Southern tip of Lower Manhattan and the waterfronts of Brooklyn, including Coney Island and JFK airport, are considered particularly at risk.

Given the industry and congestion of the city, a single storm can have far-reaching consequences. The impact of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was devastating – half of Manhattan lost electricity, beaches and seaside communities were temporarily evacuated, and all transport hubs, including airports and subways, were shut down.

Six years have now passed, but New Yorkers are still dealing with the aftermath of Sandy. The storm caused severe damage to the Canarsie Tunnel in the East River, and the required repairs will shut down the L train for 15 months in 2019. As this is the main subway line that connects Northern Brooklyn with Manhattan, it is difficult to overstate the effect this will have on the hundreds of thousands of residents who may be forced to move to more commuter-friendly neighbourhoods.

The city has already invested in a $20 billion program to fortify its infrastructure, build new sea walls and protect the city’s most vulnerable areas. A report put out by the Regional Plan Association last year, however, claims this falls short of the additional $28 billion that is needed to address urgent concerns. The report warns that ocean levels are expected to rise by two feet over the next 30 years, which would put an estimated 10,000 homes in the tristate area permanently under water.

It remains to be seen if NYC’s recent efforts to tackle climate change on its own will be enough, given the federal government’s current climate-sceptic agenda. Within his first year, President Trump has attempted to reverse Barack Obama’s hard-won climate policies, announcing early on his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord. Earlier this month, the Trump Administration gave energy companies a windfall by allowing oil and gas drilling in almost all America’s coastal waters, and in vast parts of the Arctic.

According to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a group of NGOs investigating the government’s assault on environmental regulations, the Trump Administration has removed the very mention of climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. In fact, over 200 climate webpages have been taken down, including Obama’s Climate Action Plan that provides guidance on how cities and states can better prepare for natural disasters.

New York is not alone in forging policies that directly contradict those of the federal government. San Francisco and Oakland have filed similar lawsuits against major energy companies, and Washington DC has made plans to divest from businesses involved in fossil fuels. Similarly, when Trump announced the withdrawal from the Paris accord, mayors and governors across the country declared their intention to meet the targets of the Paris agreement, regardless of Washington’s stance on the matter.

Cities carry an enormous burden in addressing the threat of climate change. The residents of global cities are demonstrating, through the polls or civic engagement, their commitment to supporting legislation that protects the environment. To better meet the demands of their constituents, mayors will be increasingly pressured to avoid federal policies that contradict these values. As the cultural and economic centres of their countries, global cities can exert political influence, granting their leadership an ever-expanding platform to pursue the political and diplomatic alliances that better serve their agenda.

Going forward, the threat of climate change will weigh even more heavily on our daily lives. Collaboration between the world’s global cities, driven by more environmentally conscious constituents, could lead the way in creating progressive, evidence-based policies that will better prepare us for the increasing threat of climate change.

About Maria Polychronis:
Maria lives in New York and has spent nearly 10 years working in international development and has supported programs for the United Nations, various NGOs and major development consultancies in the UK. She has a Masters in human rights and global policy, and has previously been published by Rutgers University in the US. Maria currently works as a governance advisor on a US sanctions program on Wall Street.
Image Courtesy: Paul Lowry (,  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic