Climate Damages Lawsuits: A trip down memory lane

There are striking parallels between the 1998 legal settlement with the tobacco companies and ongoing lawsuits that blame the big oil companies for the costs of climate change.

Tobacco spent billions of dollars trying to debunk the medical science that smoking causes lung cancer.  Meanwhile, millions of American continued to smoke, many dying prematurely as a result.  The tobacco companies provided a product, but the choice to smoke was made by individuals.  Setting aside, for the moment, the impacts of “second-hand” smoke, the risk was borne by smokers, but many costs were borne by society at large.  Eventually, the states sued the tobacco companies to recover the costs of providing Medicare coverage to smoking victims, winning a group lawsuit that provided a payout of about $200 billion in recovered costs over 25 years.

The big oil companies are known to have spent billions of dollars to convince us that the science of human-caused climate change was wrong or at least inconclusive, even when they knew otherwise from their own scientists. Millions of American continued to use fossil fuels, despite the known risks and costs of climate change, now estimated to range as high as $200 billion annually for the United States, per 1o C of warming. The oil companies provided a product, and customers made the choice to buy it. A lot of the costs of climate change will be borne by society at large, through taxes and insurance premiums.

Now cities and states that are likely to be affected by climate change, especially from the costs of sea-level rise are suing to recover anticipated damages.  Recently a judge in a Federal District Court dismissed a lawsuit against big oil companies brought by the State of New York, but the litigation continues.  Big oil is estimated to have contributed about 11% of the emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

The attribution of the ongoing climate change is a science question, with widespread agreement among scientists about what is responsible and how severe the costs will be.  Who should pay those costs is a legal question.  The precedent from the tobacco settlement is that the polluters are liable, especially when they knowingly continued their actions.  Big oil may win this legal challenge, but it begs the larger question of when our government will begin to take the science of climate change seriously and address emissions of greenhouse gases.  This is not the time to “kick-the-can” down the road to the next generation. 



Hsiang, S. and 11 others. 2017.  Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States.  Science 356: 1362-1369.

2 thoughts on “Climate Damages Lawsuits: A trip down memory lane

  1. There is a perspective which holds that the current data show that the US has reduced its carbon footprint to below 1992 levels in the last ten years without any International Pact forcing it to do so. However, India, China and Indonesia, and according to the New York Times, other Far Eastern and Mid-Eastern countries, are increasing their carbon footprint. Do you know what is the data on how much these countries will be effectively wiping out the decreases globally that the US has achieved? Perhaps New York City and San Francisco should be suing these other countries who are increasing their carbon output. Or better still they might want to sue the manufactures of air conditioners who apparently are using a gas which when released can be several thousand times more potent as a green house gas than CO2. Perhaps you could write an article on these air conditioner gases and their impact on global warming and the risk of air conditioning units being badly disposed of or maintained globally, including whether their production and use worldwide is growing with a higher standard of living in the Third World. What an irony that would be.


    1. The emissions of greenhouse gases from the U.S. peaked in 2007 and have declined about 12% since that time. Of course, those accounts do not include emissions by other countries that make goods that are sold in the U.S., for which some analyses suggest that our emissions would be 18% higher than reported. See While emissions have flattened during the last several years globally, because about 44% of any and all emissions remain in the atmosphere, the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide is still growing and that is what really matters to climate change.

Comments are closed.