CLIMATE WATCH - “Humanity has opened the gates to hell.” That grim warning from U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at New York’s Climate Ambition Summit came after the hottest summer on record as fires, floods and other climate-driven disasters have wreaked havoc around the world.
As an environmental lawyer working on the climate crisis for two decades, I’ve found it excruciating to watch the brutal toll mount. And I’m appalled to see the fossil fuel industry continuing to lie about climate science, block progress, and profit from its deadly, planet-heating product.
For years, the industry has blocked new legislation, slowed and watered down lifesaving agency rulemaking, and promoted false solutions like carbon capture and sequestration to actually prolong fossil fuel use.
But I’m heartened by the lawsuit just filed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta against five of the world’s largest oil companies and the American Petroleum Institute. Their game-changing legal action could supercharge California’s efforts to fight the climate crisis.
In the suit, filed on behalf of the people of California, the state challenges Big Oil for its decades-long deception campaigns. The industry’s disinformation was designed to prolong the fossil fuel era—and that’s exactly what it did.
California’s legal complaint makes the critical point that the defendants are still lying today, including through more subtly misleading advertising—greenwashing—that lulls people into thinking their dangerous products are somehow “low emissions” or environmentally friendly. The lawsuit seeks to make the defendants pay for the damage they have caused—and to stop the lying and obstruction.
Holding Big Oil accountable for the lies it has told and the damage it has done is incredibly important: Justice must be done. But this case also has the potential to boost all of California’s efforts on climate change by disrupting the fossil fuel industry’s successful, insidious campaigns to block progress.
For years, the industry has blocked new legislation, slowed and watered down lifesaving agency rulemaking, and promoted false solutions like carbon capture and sequestration to actually prolong fossil fuel use. California’s lawsuit, with its detailed catalogue of Big Oil’s misdeeds, makes it substantially harder for oil and gas companies to successfully deploy these tactics, even while the case is still pending.
The clarity with which the governor and attorney general are speaking about the case and the fossil fuel industry is also significant. In New York, Gov. Newsom said repeatedly, “The climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis,” receiving well-deserved applause at the otherwise staid Climate Ambition Summit. This is important, because many people do not know that more than 85% of U.S. greenhouse pollution comes from oil, gas, and coal.
The governor’s case is also significant because California is the first jurisdiction with substantial fossil fuel production to bring a climate damages suit.
While California was once one of the world’s largest oil producers, production has been in decline for decades. Production, drilling, and permitting of new wells are all now dropping dramatically.
Indeed, this case builds upon historic steps Gov. Newsom has already taken to protect Californians from Big Oil, including banning fracking. He has also championed a statewide health-and-safety buffer law to protect people from toxic oil drilling near homes and schools.
The oil industry has delayed this lifesaving law by spending millions to qualify a referendum to overturn it. In November 2024, California voters will have the chance to vote to uphold the law and protect our kids from toxic oil industry pollution.
Newsom has also worked with the California legislature to pass a first-of-its kind price-gouging penalty law that established a new independent watchdog—the Division of Petroleum Market Oversight—to monitor the oil industry and prevent gouging. And with his executive order requiring that all new passenger vehicles sold in California be zero emissions by no later than 2035, Newsom is speeding the transition off oil altogether.
Other leaders should follow Gov. Newsom in holding Big Oil accountable—especially Pres. Joe Biden and his Justice Department. California’s leadership shows how we can thwart the oil industry’s horrific plans to disrupt climate action—and head off the hellish consequences.
(Kassie Siegel is director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute. She wrote the petition and litigated the cases that resulted in protection of the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming in 2008. This article was featured in Common Dreams.)