Even lawyers supporting climate lawsuits are skeptical about their legality

By Chris White

One of the attorneys responsible for targeting oil companies’ climate records is skeptical about the prospects of winning lawsuits against Exxon Mobil and other companies over global warming.

New York City and other coastal cities will have a difficult time suing oil producers for contributing to global warming, Michael Burger, who heads the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told Axios Monday.

Burger’s group was partially responsible for a series of reports in 2015 suggesting that Exxon hid knowledge about climate change from the public for decades. Columbia University, The Los Angeles Times and InsideClimate News conducted reports criticizing the oil company.

“I think these are very tough cases to win,” Burger said, noting that the political nature of climate change and the need to trace precise amounts of causation and blame against the oil industry. He was referring to a bevy of lawsuits filed earlier this month from Los Angeles, Oakland and New York City that seek to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for climate change.

Nevertheless, Burger is excited about the prospect of such litigation.

“The extent of culpability with the degree of knowledge and what they decided to do has not had a chance to be fully aired in court,” he said.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio believes the five largest oil companies contributed to climate conditions that he says fed the destructive force of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. He is suing for compensation.

Sandy killed 53 people and caused nearly $19 billion in damage. New York’s recovery has included resiliency projects to strengthen the city against future natural disasters. De Blasio, a Democrat, wants the oil companies to pay for the improvements.

His lawsuit is fashioned around similar ones leveled against tobacco companies decades ago. “The tobacco lawsuits were crucial to changing the public understanding about tobacco,” de Blasio said at a press conference after announcing the decision. “So these actions today we see as crucial to changing the assumptions.”

DeBlasio’s lawsuit comes on the heels of New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s probes into Exxon’s climate history – his investigation has taken many twists and turns. One of the turns prompted the Washington Post to report last year that “New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has gotten very far away from where he started in his office’s investigation into ExxonMobil.”

Legal analysts suggested last year that Schneiderman’s initial claims, which suggest Exxon had been hiding information about global warming for decades, were unlikely to bear much fruit in a court of law.

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Image courtesy of Bruce Parker/TNR