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Lawsuits like Ellison’s will hold the fossil fuel industry accountable

For more than 30 years, experts, advocates, and citizens have been sounding the alarm about the damage fossil fuel consumption is doing to our planet. And for more than 30 years, fossil fuel companies have cast doubt and sown confusion about these facts.

Attorney General Keith Ellison
Attorney General Keith Ellison
REUTERS/Eric Miller

For more than 30 years, experts, advocates, and citizens have been sounding the alarm about the damage fossil fuel consumption is doing to our planet. And for more than 30 years, fossil fuel companies have cast doubt and sown confusion about these facts at every opportunity. Now wildfires blaze out of control in the America West, In Europe and China massive floods are destroying lives and property. In our own state of Minnesota, our air quality is the worst it’s been in more than 100 years because of Canadian wildfires.

This is what climate change looks like. The cost of its impacts are growing larger and larger with each passing year, costs shouldered by taxpayers and consumers. Meanwhile, fossil fuel interests continue to dodge accountability for the damage they’ve caused. In Minnesota alone, climate change related impacts cost Minnesotans over $1 billion annually. 

Just over one year ago, Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, the Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, and the American Petroleum Institute. The suit seeks damages from the fossil fuel companies for the harm they have caused through years of fraudulent and deceptive practices. Just as tobacco companies for years lied about the dangers of their products, so too did the fossil fuel companies lie about the dangers of theirs. 

Bella Garrioch
Bella Garrioch
As early as the 1970s, industry giants like Exxon were receiving reports from their own researchers, leaders in the field of climate science, that their products were causing unprecedented warming on a global scale. Rather than share this information with consumers and regulators, the industry embarked on a decades-long, multibillion-dollar campaign to mislead both their consumers and the government, and to undermine the very science their own research confirmed. In short, they lied. 350 co-founder Bill McKibben called the behavior of the fossil fuel industry “the most consequential cover-up in U.S. history.” 

Accountability suits like Ellison’s are quickly expanding to U.S. cities. The outcome of these cases could shift the way we think about climate change. During the 40 years of deceit, the fossil fuel industry had us believing that there was either no way to fight climate change or that it was all up to recycling to save the world: Both of these claims in fact pushed us further away from the real solution to the crisis, namely changing our energy sources. By dumping billions of dollars ($9.75 billion was spent by Exxon on lobbying in 2019 alone) into the narrative of climate denial, these companies got rich off our suffering. Even the idea of the “individual carbon footprint,” a commonly-used tool to explain climate change, was fabricated to shift blame from the corporations that were ruining, and continue to ruin our shared planet. This resulted in people believing that structural solutions were unnecessary or too difficult to pull off.

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We are witnessing the consequences of these lies now, and that is why the suit brought by Ellison and others like it are so important. For years, the fossil fuel industry and its lawyers successfully held off lawsuits by convincing judges that suits against them were backdoor attempts at policy changes, but the fact is these are clearly consumer suits seeking damages for the clear harm caused by the fossil fuel companies’ deception. 

It is too late to turn back the clock on the lost years when we could have been taking stronger action to protect our climate, but we can hold those who willfully and knowingly lied to us accountable. These lawsuits will not fix the mess our planet is in right now, but they will force the fossil fuel industry to pay for the damage they caused. 

Bella Garrioch is a junior at Macalester College, studying environmental studies, and a volunteer with MN350, a Minnesota climate justice group affiliated with 350.org.

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