The hotter the planet gets, the more often people and governments have been asking courts to determine who's responsible for the effects of climate change.
The New York state attorney general filed the latest suit Oct. 24, alleging that Exxon Mobil defrauded investors by misrepresenting the costs of climate change regulations to its business.
“It’s a case that’s about a company that told investors one thing but was, in fact, doing something else,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Exxon called the allegations baseless.
A least nine cities and counties nationwide have sued fossil fuel companies to help defray the cost of adapting to climate change.
Then there’s the lawsuit filed by 21 young Americans that alleges the federal government should be doing more to protect citizens from the effects of burning fossil fuels.
A proliferation of digital documents — internal corporate communication — is helping all these cases along. Documents like these helped implicate tobacco companies in lying about the safety of their products.
Scientific research began to surface as early as the 1950s that smoking was dangerous to health. Many of the large tobacco companies also knew this because they had conducted their own research into tobacco that concluded their product was carcinogenic. Some of these internal studies and correspondence surrounding the findings were uncovered when the United States brought a lawsuit against nine cigarette manufacturers in 1999. The lawsuit alleged that the companies violated federal racketeering laws by engaging in a conspiracy to deceive the American public about the health effects of smoking. A landmark opinion issued almost a decade later sided with the government; it found that the companies had in fact lied about the dangers of their product.
That ruling relied in part on the tobacco companies own internal documents, unearthed during the normal course of litigation, sometimes called “discovery,” to reach its conclusions. Many of these documents can still be accessed through The Truth Tobacco Industry Documents.
Some fossil fuel companies are in a similar situation with regards to their research into climate change.
“We have much more information and records of what fossil fuel companies knew and didn't know; we have that research data, we have data from scientists. There are emails, implications where they take one position in one instance and a different position in another instance,” said Victor Flatt, a law professor at the University of Houston.
“Much of the focus has been on a growing awareness of the difference between what these companies knew about the harms associated with their products and what they told the public, what they told investors, what they told regulators,” said Carroll Muffett with the Center for International Environmental Law.
Muffett added that the lawsuits against oil, gas and coal companies are moving more swiftly than the ones that caught up with the tobacco companies.