Using a strategy is based on the 1990s lawsuits against tobacco companies, New York City and several California municipalities are suing big oil companies, alleging they concealed what they knew about climate change, and are liable for damage caused by rising global temperatures.
In a recent interview with BP CEO Bob Dudley said, “People don’t need to smoke cigarettes, but they have needed energy for many decades,” Dudley told me earlier this month. “If you’re asking me can the legal system do something like that, I don’t know. But do I think it’s right? Absolutely not.”
A CEO publicly commenting on pending legal matters is rare, and it shows these lawsuits are rattling the industry.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his lawsuit the day after this interview, while the California cities and counties filed theirs last year.
“The tobacco lawsuits were crucial to changing the public understanding about tobacco,” de Blasio said at a news conference earlier this month. “So these actions today we see as crucial to changing the assumptions. We no longer assume that the fossil fuel companies are innocent.”
Unlike with cigarettes, charges of hypocrisy prevelent because everyone — including de Blasio — uses fossil fuels.
“If the lawsuits are going to matter, it’s in changing the status quo,” said Michael Livermore, a professor at the University of Virginia law school. “The problem has always been that the status quo is acceptable for the major emitters.”