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Almost eight years after Hurricane Sandy, Hoboken brings oil giants to court
With the fight for climate accountability in full swing, Hoboken is stepping up to the plate.
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Hoboken ambulance swallowed by Hurricane Sandy flood waters. Credit: accarrino
When climate-charged Hurricane Sandy pulverized Hoboken almost eight years ago, nearly 80 percent of the small but densely populated New Jersey city went underwater.
Unrelenting rains and storm surge swept raw sewage through the streets as 20,000 residents found themselves marooned in their homes. Months (and for some, years) later, local businesses were still buried in lost revenue and debt. The city suffered hundreds of millions in damages — and as is often the case, the hardest road to recovery fell on its lower-income Black and Brown neighborhoods.
Sandy’s wreckage was a warning, and Hoboken hasn’t forgotten it. Its leaders have been striving to create a climate-resilient city ever since.
This Wednesday, in the middle of a raging Atlantic hurricane season that promises to bring more damage, Hoboken became the first city in New Jersey — and the 20th community in the U.S. — to file a lawsuit against major oil and gas companies seeking to hold them accountable for the climate crisis they knowingly caused and the astronomical costs the city is paying, and will pay, to adapt. We’re here with the details on how Hoboken is taking on Goliath oil companies in the fight for its future.
Hoboken is taking on the major players in climate denial and deception.
Hoboken’s lawsuit charges oil giants BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Exxon and Shell, as well as the American Petroleum Institute, the world’s largest oil and trade association, with consumer fraud under state law along with common law torts claims including negligence and nuisance, which have been alleged in previously filed climate liability lawsuits.
“Despite decades of warnings, Defendants did nothing to slow their aggressive production, marketing, and sale of fossil fuels, choosing to prioritize profits over averting monumental harm to communities like Hoboken,” reads the complaint. As EXXONKNEWS readers know and as the lawsuit explains, polluters didn’t stop there: they spent the following decades “deceiving the public about their central role in causing climate change in order to grease the wheels of their ever-expanding production and sale of fossil fuels.”
Hoboken’s lawsuit gives us some particularly eerie examples of this con. For instance, a confidential Shell report from 1988 that states, in keeping with the extensive research of its peers, that “[B]y the time global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even stabilise the situation.” While Shell and others were adapting their own infrastructure to keep climate impacts at bay, the industry went on to form a network of front groups — the “Information Council on the Environment” — with an explicit mission to “reposition global warming as theory, not fact.”
“It’s now abundantly clear that Big Oil created one set of standards for themselves in adapting to climate change while thwarting efforts that would help protect future generations from its catastrophic consequences,” said Mayor Bhalla at Wednesday’s press conference announcing the lawsuit. “Here in Hoboken we are now paying the price for these deceptive actions.”
That price is not a figurative one. In the wake of storms like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Hoboken is adapting to a new reality of rapidly rising seas, climbing temperatures and extreme weather events like the two tropical storms that hit the city in July. Hoboken’s high tide flood days have already more than doubled since the start of the century. Its existing flood protection plan runs a $500 million bill to retrofit buildings, install pumps and water storage capacities, and prepare the city’s waterfront to survive whatever deluge comes next. A study from the Center for Climate Integrity (that’s us) predicts that, by 2040, the city will need to spend almost $28 million on seawalls to keep the rising tide out.
While the industry continues to lie to the public about its operations and stall collective action to address the climate crisis, threats to places like Hoboken only grow — and so does the bill.
Hoboken made the connection between climate and racial and economic justice clear.
“Make no mistake about it, climate change is a racial justice issue in Hoboken and across cities everywhere,” Mayor Bhalla said on Wednesday.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, people in the Hoboken Housing Authority — which sits on the city’s low-elevation West side — were stranded without power and running water for days.
“I saw firsthand the decisions required to keep our infrastructure and residents safe,” said LaTrenda Ross, former co-chair of the Hoboken Rebuild by Design Community Advisory Group and former resident of the Hoboken Housing Authority, on Wednesday. “It’s hard — and it becomes even harder when already underserved communities have to worry about a rainstorm impacting their lives, let alone a superstorm that paralyzed an entire community.”
The Housing Authority isn’t alone. The lawsuit describes how communities of color and low-income communities bear a disproportionate burden of climate damages, from decreased property values and rampant air pollution to heat-related illnesses and flooding. “As became clear during Superstorm Sandy, it was already marginalized communities who were left most vulnerable from climate change harm,” reads the complaint.
Without adequate funding, these communities are forced to make painful tradeoffs in order to prioritize the safety of residents in the face of climate catastrophe. The lawsuit seeks to address that: at its next meeting, the Hoboken City Council will sponsor a resolution supported by Mayor Bhalla pledging that any money received in the case will go first towards making the Hoboken Housing Authority climate resilient.
“This is our opportunity to make it right,” said Ross. And that’s exactly what the city intends to do.
Hoboken’s lawsuit paves a path towards resilience that puts frontline communities first.
If Hoboken were to win the lawsuit, it would have the opportunity to help the neighborhoods most vulnerable to but least responsible for the devastating impacts of climate change. That could be a model for other communities fighting to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate harms that have been distributed so unequally.
In fact, that model could soon come in handy for New Jersey at large. State lawmakers are considering Senate Resolution 57, which urges Governor Murphy and Attorney General Grewal to file a climate liability lawsuit on behalf of the state of New Jersey — and several municipal governments have passed resolutions towards that end.
“Over the past two years, we’ve taken action against some of the nation’s largest polluters for the damage that they have done to New Jersey’s environment, as part of our commitment to ensuring robust environmental enforcement and promoting environmental justice,” said AG Grewal, who is still weighing the options.
As New Jersey’s leaders look for ways to prepare communities across the state for the coming storms without bankrupting the most vulnerable, following Hoboken’s lead seems like the natural next step.
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Until next week!