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Charleston becomes the first Southern U.S. city to sue Big Oil
Charleston, Hoboken, and the state of Delaware all filed suit over the course of 8 days.
Flooding in North Charleston after Hurricane Joaquin. Credit: Ryan Johnson
This week, Charleston became the first city in the South to file a climate liability lawsuit against fossil fuel companies.
Like many other cities across the United States, the costs of buffering Charleston’s low-lying communities against sea level rise and stifling temperatures are coming up against the realities of shrinking public resources during a pandemic.
The city residents who will pay for the climate emergency didn’t cause the problem — hundreds of industry documents, many of them cited in Charleston’s complaint, that detail decades of extensive campaigns to downplay and deny the disasters they accurately predicted their products would cause show exactly who did.
The lawsuit, filed against two dozen oil and gas majors, isn’t shy about calling this what it is: a “conspiracy” to “conceal and misrepresent the known dangers of fossil fuels,” leading to a host of injuries “including, but not limited to, sea level rise, flooding, erosion, loss of wetlands and beaches, extreme precipitation events, and other social and economic consequences of these environmental changes.” Like Hoboken, Charleston’s filing includes a range of claims for climate damages and charges the companies with defrauding the city’s residents.
Mayor John Tecklenberg stood in front of the Low Battery Seawall, the city’s expensive project to stem flooding from rapidly rising seas, as he announced the lawsuit on Wednesday. Three years ago, he noted in between the sounds of construction, the place where he stood had been breached by climate-charged storm surge from Hurricane Irma — in 2050, high tide flooding could occur every other day.
“It’s not fair to the citizens of Charleston to have to bear the burden, the total cost of these improvements that are needed because of sea-level rise,” Mayor Tecklenberg said. “As this lawsuit shows, these companies have known for more than 50 years that their products were going to cause the worst flooding the world has seen since Noah built the Ark."
Charleston is spending billions to stay afloat.
True climate resilience might have been a pipe dream in Charleston. From rising seas to more frequent and severe storms and public health threats, the city is racing against time and budgetary limits to adapt.
The city is making an effort to prevent future storms like Hurricanes Matthew, Florence, and Irma from wreaking havoc — but adapting is a major undertaking. Mayor Tecklenberg says Charleston could spend close to $2 billion on drainage projects necessary to keep stormwater out, not to mention the rippling costs like preparing an economy that’s heavily dependent on tourism and aquaculture for the inevitable losses. Charleston is expected to see an additional 30 days over 95 degrees by 2070, according to the complaint, and will need to build cooling centers, install extra air conditioning, and come up with other ways to protect residents from the dangers of such extreme heat.
“The cost is daunting. Can we do it by ourselves? We can’t,” said Councilman Keith Waring, who chairs the city’s Public Works Committee, at Wednesday’s press conference.
“Our citizens need to know that we’re behind them. Because they’re behind us,” Waring said. “What we want is for these companies to be fair in addressing the damages they knew that they caused.”
It’s not just public officials who are thinking about what climate change is going to cost Charleston. As Eddy Moore, energy and climate program director of the Coastal Conservation League shared with EXXONKNEWS, “Coping with the effects of climate change in Charleston will cost billions of dollars and could fundamentally change the city’s character.”
But it’s more than just the coastline in the Holy City or its historic cotton-candy colored buildings that are at risk.
Charleston’s complaint highlights the uneven climate burden on Black communities.
Charleston’s filing emphasizes that due to systemic inequities, “under-resourced communities and communities of color are and will continue to be the hardest hit by the physical and environmental consequences of Defendants’ actions, and will require the most resources, including from the City, to respond and adapt to the climate crisis.”
The complaint goes on to provide a list of the climate impacts these communities will be dealing with: extreme heat events, flooding from increased sea levels and extreme weather events, poor air quality and the resulting respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, worsened food and energy insecurity, compromised drinking water, and, overall, less access to the provisions wealthier communities use to adapt.
Many of Charleston’s Black residents live on its low-lying coast, which is more vulnerable to flooding — the aftermath of rice and indigo plantations where hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved, many of whose descendants remain on their family’s land. As the complaint notes, the median household income for Black residents today is 40 percent of its white counterparts.
Those disparities are made worse as gentrification in Charleston displaces Black families from their homes — making it even more likely that they could be permanently uprooted by an extreme weather event.
“Climate change really is a Black issue,” Bernard Powers, interim CEO of the International African American Museum, told Quartz last week. The museum will feature the untold histories of Black South Carolinians when it opens in 2022 — if flooding doesn’t breach its halls first. “People who live close to the coast as we do, we’re the ones who are going to be affected by potential damage from increasingly devastating hurricanes.”
A sign of things to come?
“[Fossil fuel companies] knew what was coming long before taxpayers did, and they covered it up. Exxon and the rest should help pay the cost of protecting Charleston from the chronic flooding, storm damage, and other problems related to climate change that the city is already grappling with,” Moore said.
We can’t help but agree. It does seem fitting that after Big Oil knowingly brought floods, fires and rising seas to cities across the country, these communities are responding in kind with a flood of lawsuits to make the industry pay for the damage.
Charleston is now one of 22 municipalities and states suing the industry over climate change damages, and one of six to have joined the fight this year. It is also the first to bring a lawsuit within the jurisdiction of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals since that court ruled that a similar climate damages suit brought by Baltimore should proceed in state court. (Two other appeals courts — the Ninth and Tenth — ruled the same way earlier this year.) Might that mean others are on the way?
ICYMI News Roundup
A new federal report warns that climate change poses a serious threat to the country’s financial stability. Of course, the crisis is already affecting the finances of regular people nationwide.
Until next week — stay safe out there.