Dems Get Reality Check on Climate Suits

13 governments have sued 'Big Oil' seeking damages

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Politicians and trial lawyers eager to sue energy companies over the costs of climate change received an unwelcome message from a university professor, according to records obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The University of Hawaii hosted a gathering centered on lawsuits that have popped up across the country that ask courts to order oil companies, such as Exxon and Chevron, to pay damages to state and local governments. Panelist Makena Coffman, a professor at the university's Department of Urban Planning and Regional Planning, said that such lawsuits would be hard to prove in court.

"I'm going to try and give some insight into what do we know about our local damages, and frankly my presentation is a little bit short because we actually don't know that much," Coffman said at a May conference title "Climate Change Science & Litigation: Communities Go to Court to Recover Costs of the Climate Crisis."

The event attracted attention from federal lawmakers. Sen. Brian Schatz (D., Hawaii) attended the symposium in person, while fellow Hawaii Democrat Sen. Maize Hirono delivered a pre-recorded message. Makena said that while she supported evidence that human activity causes global warming and climate change, she said there have only been "little slivers" linking it to actual costs.

"We've gotten to a point where the science is incredibly good, we have a really good documentation of the local impacts from the physical perspective, but from the cost side, we're just starting to understand," Coffman said. "We only have little slivers here and there."

In 2017, San Francisco and Oakland launched lawsuits against large energy producers asking the courts to order "abatement funds" to help the cities dampen their costs from damages they attributed to climate change. The litigation soon spread to other state and local governments. Baltimore and Rhode Island filed similar suits, and even inland governments, such as Boulder, Colorado, got in on the game.

Nearly all of the suits did not request a specific dollar amount, but instead have been willing to rely on the court's judgment should the case be won. The lawsuits have not fared well to this point. Attorney Vic Sher, whose law firm Sher Edling is handling most of the ongoing lawsuits, defended such litigation at the conference.

"These are not cases about policy, future emissions, or what Congress should do to address climate change," Sher told the crowd. "These are about recovering the costs that communities are going to have to pay to deal with climate change impact based on emissions that have already occurred."

Moments later, he directly referenced Professor Coffman, saying she is doing "incredibly important work" by "addressing the financial impact, the economic impacts," of climate change. Neither Makena nor Sher responded to requests for comment about whether the lawsuits might be premature if "we actually don’t know that much" about costs and damages. 

Several Democratic senators like Hirono, Diane Feinstein (Calif.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) have submitted amicus briefs in some of the cases supporting the quest for damages.

The video of the event was posted to a university blog webpage shortly after the Washington Free Beacon requested a copy via Hawaii's open records law.

Hawaii was also the scene of more agitation on the subject at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting. Proponents passed a resolution "Supporting Cities' Rights and Efforts to Mitigate Climate Change Damages and Protect Taxpayers from Related Adaptation Costs."

One of those in support of the resolution was Santa Cruz mayor Martine Watkins. The Free Beacon previously reported that Watkins's conference fees were paid for by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Watkins had written an editorial in her hometown paper the Santa Cruz Sentinel explaining that no taxpayer funds would be used on the trip, but the editorial also did not mention that UCS was paying the registration.