We hear a lot about forest fires in California, but other western states have been devastated by those roaring infernos in the past few years as well. Colorado is one of them. Flooding has become an issue recently also. Micah Parkin moved to Boulder from New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. “We decided to move to higher ground knowing hurricanes are getting more intense, sea levels are rising,” she tells The Guardian. Parkin is the founder of an environmental coalition called 350 Colorado.
Fires & Floods
Within two years, Parkin and her family were put on evacuation notice as the Fourmile Canyon fire threatened her home and many parts of the city of Boulder. Then in 2013, floods swamped her home when Boulder recorded nearly a year’s worth of rain in just eight days. That year, flooding spread over 2,000 square miles, killed 8 people, destroyed more than 1,700 homes, and caused more than $3 billion worth of damage across 14 Colorado counties.
“They were calling it a once in a thousand year event. I don’t believe that. We’ve loaded the dice for more and more of these intense events happening,” Parkin says. “It’s clear that Exxon and these other companies need to be held responsible.”
The county of Boulder estimates it will cost taxpayers $100 million over the next three decades to adapt its transportation and drainage systems to the climate crisis and reduce the risk from wildfires. It says the cost should be paid by those who drove the crisis — the oil companies who spent decades covering up and misrepresenting the warnings from climate scientists.
Paying For The Damage Done
Boulder County has brought suit in state court against ExxonMobil and Suncor, a Canadian company with its US headquarters in Colorado. The legal action seeks to require those two companies to “use their vast profits to pay their fair share of what it will cost a community to deal with the problem the companies created.”
Marco Simons is general counsel for Earth Rights International, which is handling the lawsuit for the county of Boulder. The suit accuses the companies of deceptive trade practices and consumer fraud because their own scientists warned them of the dangers of burning of fossil fuels but the firms suppressed evidence of a growing climate crisis. The lawsuits also claim that as the climate emergency escalated, companies funded front groups to question the science in order to keep selling oil.
“It is far more difficult to change it now than it would have been if the companies had been honest about what they knew 30 or 50 years ago,” Simons says.“That is probably the biggest tragedy here. Communities in this country and around the world were essentially robbed of their options.”
The suit contends annual temperatures in Colorado will rise between 3.5 F and 6.5 F by 2050, which will imperil the state’s economy, including farming and the ski industry. Extreme weather is already melting the mountain snow pack, causing increased evaporation and a shortfall in the amount of water flowing down the Colorado River, which supplies drinking water to the state’s largest cities and water for irrigation in California and Arizona.
The prospect of local jurors with first hand knowledge of how the climate in Colorado has changed in recent years scares the bejezus out of the companies. Their highly paid, Gucci-shod
shills lawyers want to move the trials out of state court and into the federal court system where laws about deceptive marketing and consumer fraud do not apply.
“Their strategy is to say that these cases need to be in federal court because federal jurisdiction applies. Then they will turn around and argue that federal law provides no remedy,” says Simons. “It is all about a route to dismissing these cases.”
The outlines of the oil industry’s defense have emerged in newspaper columns pushing back against any parallels with big tobacco and claiming it is the end user, ordinary Americans, who causes pollution. Gale Norton, a former Colorado attorney general who led the state’s litigation against the cigarette companies and later worked as a legal counsel for Shell, has attacked the Boulder lawsuits as a money grab.
“About the only thing that “Big Tobacco” and “Big Oil” have in common … are the deep pockets of the defendants,” she wrote in the Denver Post. Her column highlighted her position as state attorney general, and later as US interior secretary under President George W. Bush, but made no mention of her work for the oil industry. “What is our own individual liability, since annual greenhouse gas emissions amount to almost 20 tons per person?”
The editorial board for the Denver Post penned its own response, which denounced the “false equivalence” between the cigarette companies and big oil, and said consumers bore the greater responsibility for the climate crisis. “The companies didn’t create the demand for fossil fuels. We did through our lifestyles and consumption, including every single member of the communities who now wish to target corporations for a legal shakedown,” it claimed. This is the “climate shaming” strategy described in detail recently by two Harvard professors.
Max Boykoff, a professor in the environmental studies department at the University of Colorado Boulder, says “These lawsuits are one of the tools to hold both these companies accountable,” he said. “The science has been there for years. The problem is that you have half the population who don’t want to believe in science because it means they couldn’t make as much money.”
Justice Is Bought & Paid For In America
Don’t think for a minute that the people who sit on the US Supreme Court today weren’t put there by the some of the very same people who have profited the most from the fossil fuel industry. If the company’s are successful in moving the Boulder county suit to federal court, ultimately its fate will be decided by fossil fuel stooges.
As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told Boston Public Radio this week, their PACs and phony institutes — many of them supported by and affiliated with Koch Industries — are the gatekeepers who control who gets nominated to the federal judiciary. It is highly unlikely these men and women will then turn around and rule against them.
But the judiciary in Colorado is far less likely to consist of bought and paid for stooges of the fossil fuel industry, and that’s what has Exxon and Suncor so concerned. As well they should be. They have been lying to the public for decades and taken in trillions of dollars in revenue during that time. The real question is, why are the officers and directors of these companies not in prison?
Last month, a panel of legal scholars proposed adding ecocide to the list of crimes that can be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Ecocide would be defined as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.” At present, the ICC has only 4 categories of crimes that are within its jurisdiction:
- war crimes
- crimes against humanity
- crimes of aggression
Professor Philippe Sands of University College London, who co-chaired the panel that drafted the definition, tells The Guardian, “The four other crimes all focus exclusively on the well being of human beings. This one of course does that but it introduces a new non-anthropocentric approach, namely putting the environment at the heart of international law, and so that is original and innovative.”
“For me the single most important thing about this initiative is that it’s part of that broader process of changing public consciousness, recognizing that we are in a relationship with our environment, we are dependent for our well being on the well being of the environment and that we have to use various instruments, political, diplomatic but also legal to achieve the protection of the environment.”
Public denunciations of fossil fuel company executives haven’t worked. Civil law suits haven’t worked. Activist organizations like Greenpeace, 350.org, and the Natural Resources Defense Fund haven’t worked. They just keep on drilling and building pipelines. Perhaps seeing a few corporate leaders being frog marched off to jail in leg irons would get their attention?
If I were on the jury, I would happily vote to convict these lying weasels of deliberately and knowingly trashing the environment for their own personal gain. I nominate Rex Tillerson and Charles Koch to be the first ones to stand trial. All in favor?