Slowly, the courts are examining the question of who is responsible for the consequences of global warming. Massachusetts has one case that uses consumer laws to challenge ExxonMobil, the oil giant. The US state will win the case and it will be the first to successfully prosecute a fossil fuel firm for misleading the public.
What is the actual contribution of the fossil fuel industry to tackling climate change? The companies will tell you that there is a lot. ExxonMobil is an American oil and gas company that says it is committed to developing new energy solutions that do not contribute to global warming, such as fuel made of algae.
It claims that it can "one day power planes and propel ships and fuel trucks, and cut their carbon emissions by half." Its advertisement states that "every technology we are working on lowers our carbon footprint." Our actions can make a big difference in addressing climate change.
However, not everyone is buying it. Naomi Oreskes, an Harvard University professor, says that there is a "great disconnect". Naomi Oreskes has been closely monitoring the disinformation tactics used in big business for many years.
Their business model is to continue to extract, develop, and sell oil and natural gas. Their advertising and communications make it appear that they are great people who are committed to sustainable energy. It's what ExxonMobil's critics call greenwashing, or pretending you're greener than your actual green. This is a form deception. Exxon, along with other oil companies, are fighting legal action in the US.
Massachusetts is taking Exxon to court under consumer protection laws. Exxon claims that the company continues deceiving the state's investors and consumers about the damages caused by its gasoline and oil products. Exxon strongly refutes the allegations.
The company tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the entire case on grounds that the case was not within the Massachusetts jurisdiction and that the advertisements were not directed specifically at Massachusetts residents.
The state took Exxon to court partly due to what climate change is doing the people of Massachusetts. The lawsuit mentions, among other things, the threat to fishermen and their way of living.
"Face mother nature"
Bruce Silverbrand, a shell fisherman, and oyster farmer, has been fishing in the waters around Bourne at the gateway of Cape Cod his entire life. His days are influenced by the tides and winds, as well as whether or not the crabs are mating season.
He said, "No traffic, bosses," but he also stated, "But I answer to Mother Nature for certain - and right now, she does what she wishes."
Bruce is constantly trudging into the water, and feels the effects of climate changes every day.
He says, "I get out the boat to do most of my work. The water used to come up to my waist but now it comes up to my stomach at good tides." "I am already considering buying a larger crane."
He is concerned because the weather is getting more extreme and the tides are changing. After Hurricane Ida's remnants dumped nine inches of rain in Bourne, September, his oyster farm was forced to close for two months. This has cost him $20,000 (PS14.555).
He explained that it caused "sewage runoff to enter the bay and basically foul water, so it's impossible to take any shellfish out." "I have never seen so much rain."
Big Oil on the Dock
21 states in the US are taking major fossil fuel companies, including Chevron ExxonMobil and BP, to court. They are accused of greenwashing and engaging in a disinformation campaign for decades about the impacts of climate change. These claims are denied by the companies.
This is part of a global pattern of legal actions against fossil fuel companies.
They made us question everything!
What is greenwashing?
Courts order an increase in compensation cases
Partly, the US cases concern historical documents that contain information about what oil companies knew and did not reveal about climate change many decades ago. Exxon claims that some statements made by "cherry-picked" employees were taken out of context.
However, in Massachusetts and other states, the legal system is focused on what fossil fuel companies do right now.
Why is Massachusetts important?
"We want the company stop engaging in misleading or deceptive practices," stated Maura Healey (Massachusetts Attorney General), when she opened the case in 2019.
Massachusetts could go on for many years. It is however the most advanced. It could lead to billions in compensation if it is successful.
"Officially, we are seeking civil penalties. But this is about getting the company open with the public. Stop lying about who they are and what their past actions were.
Karen Sokol, Loyola University's law professor, New Orleans, says, "You would assume that the company’s primary business involves saving the world." The legal claim that this is true is false. Because oil and gas are your primary business. It's fossil fuels.
Exxon argued in court documents, that no reasonable consumer would believe it had stopped investing in fossil fuel products.
When we asked the company for comments on specific examples of its advertisements, they replied that legal cases such as the one in Massachusetts cost taxpayers millions and did not promote meaningful actions to reduce climate change risks.
It also stated that the case against it is without merit. It accused Attorney General Healey, of trying to deny Exxon constitutional freedom to speech and using legal means to force her ideologies on the company.
Exxon claims it has spent more than $10 billion (PS7.25bn), over the last 20 years on research and development of "lower-emission" energy solutions. Exxon's most recent annual report shows that it spent $10.4bn on 2020 to develop new oil and gas resources.
This is the core of the allegation: Exxon's advertisements promoting green solutions don't accurately reflect the majority of what they actually do.
Last month, the US Congress was under pressure on the fossil fuel sector. Leaders of the four largest US oil companies appeared before a committee of Congress to discuss climate disinformation claims.
Darren Woods, Exxon's chief Executive Officer was one of them. A sympathetic Republican congressman asked him if he'd ever approved of a climate disinformation campaign. He replied, "No, I haven't."
A more hostile Democrat asked if any company could lie about climate change, and then use the constitutional rights to free speech to "protect against litigation." "I don’t believe companies should lie," Mr Woods said. "And I would tell you that we do not."
When asked if Exxon would match European counterparts BP or Shell's efforts to reduce oil production, he retorted that he didn't know the answer but said, "We're committed towards lowering our emissions."
Although the legal and political battles over climate change seem to be intensifying, they aren’t making much of an impact with Bruce Silverbrand on the Massachusetts coast.
"They'll just fight each other forever. He says he doesn't believe he'll ever see any benefit from it. "I have lived my whole life. I am 56 years old and I wonder what my children will do with the information I have. It's already too late if we don't get on the same page about climate change and act now.