Fishermen in California and Oregon are suing dozens of oil producers and other companies for spreading false information about fossil fuel’s effect on the environment.
Their argument asserts that oil companies like Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell Oil, hid the environmental impact of fossil fuels from the public, while building seawalls and bolstering oil rigs from rising sea levels, NPR reports.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is asking that these companies, 30 in all, be held responsible for the warming ocean, which has contributed to the destruction of the Dungeness crab fishery.
This is the first time in history that food producers have taken the fossil fuel industry to court for environmental issues.
Toxic algae blooms, which have increased rapidly in the last 4 years, have resulted in elevated levels of domoic acid in the Northeast Pacific. Shellfish exposed to this neurotoxin are unsafe for humans to eat, which means fisheries cannot catch or sell them to coastal restaurants or marketplaces. California and Oregon actually pushed back the regular crab season in 2015 to allow for domoic acid levels to drop below unsafe levels.
It’s cost the fishing industry at least $445 million according to Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. In response, the federal government has doled out around $15 million in disaster relief to help fishermen get by.
It’s still not enough. Moreover, the fisheries don’t think taxpayers should be the ones bailing them out.
“The financial harm should be covered by those perpetrating it,” Oppenheim told NPR. “All these impacts we’re dealing with have nothing to do with abundance of the stock or overfishing. They’re driven by ocean warming and these blooms of toxin-producing algae.”
The fishing industry isn’t the only group concerned with the effect climate change has on food production in the United States. In October 2018, the 791-page report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of widespread famine in more than just equatorial countries if the global temperature were to increase just 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels. A report from the U.S. federal government was no sunnier.
“[Y]ields from major U.S. commodity crops are expected to decline as a consequence of higher temperatures,” the report stated.
Pressure is mounting on those who continue to deny or contribute to climate change. The Supreme Court has allowed a lawsuit filed by a group of 21 young Americans, asking the federal government to take action on climate change, to proceed despite the Trump administration’s efforts to stall it.
“We’ve been confident throughout this case that we would get to trial, and I believe we will get to trial,” Julia Olson, the attorney for the youths and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, told The Washington Post. “We have overcome everything the government has thrown at us. It is not luck. It is the strength of the case and the strength of the evidence and the strength of the legal arguments we are making.”
According to the Smithsonian, New York, San Francisco, and other cities have also attempted to bring their own climate change cases forward against energy companies. As the complaints in those lawsuits involve a federal regulatory issue, judges have rendered the cases moot.
Policymakers are watching this latest lawsuit with a keen eye. Not just because it’s the first time one industry has taken another to court over climate change, but because it opens up the possibility of many more similar complaints coming forward.
“When a group of commercial fishermen, among the most conservative people in America, sue the fossil fuel industry, the defendants can no longer characterize these cases as being brought by ‘radical politicians,’” David Bookbinder, chief counsel at the Niskanen Center, told Energy & Environment News. “And once the first private-sector plaintiffs have filed a case, the defendants are going to have to wonder where it will stop. This is a whole new front.”
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.