The Multnomah County lawsuit is just one of many emerging efforts to hold corporations responsible for climate change and may set a new precedent for global corporate accountability.
The “heat dome” that engulfed the Pacific Northwestern US for three days in June 2021 was unlike anything the region had ever endured. Temperatures in various areas peaked at 108°, 112° and 116°F in a wave of extreme heat that tested the limits of a part of the world that rarely sees triple-digit temperatures in the hottest parts of summer.
The situation renewed calls linking climate change to extreme weather events — so much so that leaders in Multnomah County, Oregon (which includes Portland) decided to formally sue 17 fossil fuel-producing companies including Shell, ExxonMobil and BP. The suit aims to not only hold these companies accountable for the heat dome — which the County says led to 69 deaths in its jurisdiction — but more broadly for the acceleration of climate change over the past six decades.
"This lawsuit is about accountability and fairness; and I believe the people of Multnomah County deserve both. These businesses knew their products were unsafe and harmful, and they lied about it," said County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson in a press release. "They have profited massively from their lies and left the rest of us to suffer the consequences and pay for the damages. We say enough is enough."
It's been shown that fossil-fuel companies have long been aware of the harmful impacts of their products and have intentionally deceived the public to deny this harm. In 2015, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a damning report documenting the deception tactics used for decades by fossil fuel companies including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy to spread misinformation about climate change. The Climate Deception Dossiers cites evidence including congressional hearings that discussed the contribution of carbon emissions to the greenhouse effect as early as 1977, a 1981 email from an Exxon employee that shows the company was already factoring climate change into decisions about fossil-fuel extraction, and over 80 other internal memos showing a variety of industry efforts to manufacture uncertainty about climate science.
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In the past decade, institutional investors have issued repeated calls for fossil-fuel giants to report on their risks related to climate change and stranded assets and to stop dragging their feet on developing and scaling renewable-energy solutions; and have suggested the industry be taxed to pay for the costs to society and the environment associated with climate change. But these changes have been slow to emerge.
In the meantime, Multnomah County is seeking $50 million in actual damages from the 2021 event and $1.5 billion in future damages — along with an estimated $50 billion abatement fund to study, plan and upgrade the public healthcare services and infrastructure that will be reasonably necessary to “weatherproof” the County from future extreme heat events and to safeguard the public health.
Just the latest case on the docket
The Multnomah County lawsuit is sure to either support, or continue to challenge, upcoming rulings — such as the pending judgment in Held v. Montana, which is being lauded as the country’s first major challenge to hold state governments accountable for climate change. That suit, spearheaded by 16 young adults in Montana, relies on the grounds of the “right to a healthy environment” that’s written into the state’s constitution. The trial ended last week and the ruling isn’t expected to be decided for weeks; but whatever the decision, it will set a game-changing precedent.
Some of the cases with the most potential are being filed by Our Children’s Trust — a public-interest non-profit law firm that guided the Held plaintiff through its case. The group has worked, or is working, on pending litigation in four other states — all revolving around the similar argument of a constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment. Whereas three states currently have guarantees, nine more states are working on legislation this year to craft similar amendments.
Where this goes from here
This is going to be a slow process — even if Held offers a quick judgment in favor of those filing the suit.
Any ruling will need to make its way through the courts — likely moving to the federal level, maybe even to the Supreme Court — before anything finally sticks. Also, whatever happens through the US courts will potentially set a further global precedent for climate-change accountability. What will be interesting to watch is how the argument linking corporate and state activity to climate change through climate science comes to life.
“What is new about this case’s (argument) is how the leadership of Multnomah County is utilizing irrefutable climate science to hold corporate polluters accountable for their role in causing a discreet and disastrous event, as well as recent wildfires,” attorney Roger Worthington — a partner at California-based Worthington & Caron, PC, one of three firms representing Multnomah County in the suit — said through a press release. “We will show that fossil fuel-induced global warming is already costing Oregonians lives and treasure. We will show that the normal use of fossil fuel products over time has imposed massive external, unpriced and untraded social, economic and environmental costs on the County … We will ask a jury to decide if it is fair to hold the polluters accountable for these avoidable and rising costs.”
Considering the rapid changes to the global climate we’re all enduring, that may not be as far-fetched of an argument as it once was.