Exxon boiled the Pacific Northwest. They need to pay.
Cities are crumbling under record heat waves while oil giants continue to lie and pollute.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
The Pacific Northwest wasn’t built for a world on fire. Under the blaze of this week’s record-shattering heatwave, the mechanics of everyday life came to a grinding halt. At least 63 people have died in Oregon alone.
Temperatures in Portland and Seattle reached an unprecedented 116 degrees and 108 degrees respectively on Monday. The National Weather Service called the heatwave “intense,” “prolonged,” “abnormal” and “dangerous.” One estimate categorized the heat dome as even more rare than a once-in-a-millenium event.
As extreme heat blanketed the cities, infrastructure swooned and collapsed. Roads warped and cracked. Public transportation shut down. Power lines melted under the unrelenting sun and thousands of people lost power as air conditioners overwhelmed the grid.
In more rural areas, farmworkers — among them children and elderly people — labored outside for days in the brutal heat with little relief. It wasn’t just daytime highs: thanks to climate change, which increases baseline temperatures for heatwaves and lengthens their duration, elevated nighttime temperatures worsened the public health threat.
These deadly heat waves aren’t simply the result of climate change. They’re the inevitable consequence of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign to deceive, lobby, and lie to the American public in order to block climate action, which continues to this day.
Exxon and other oil behemoths knew since the 1970s that their products would create disastrous global warming — and that localities would be paying the price to survive. But they spent decades spreading doubt and denial to ensure that they wouldn’t have to pay a dime — locking places like Portland and Seattle into climate catastrophe and robbing them of crucial decades to prepare.
From a 1979 internal Exxon memo on the potential impact of fossil fuel combustion:
They didn’t stop there. As bombshell footage of a top Exxon lobbyist this week revealed, the company is still using its money and influence to lobby against climate legislation in the U.S., including climate provisions of President Biden’s recent infrastructure bill. You can learn more about that below, if you didn’t catch it here Wednesday.
Big Oil companies still haven’t taken responsibility for the crisis they caused, and they’re continuing to make it worse while reaping billions in the process. They’re still being invited to meet with decision makers at the White House, flooding the airwaves with lies about their climate commitments, and buying any opportunity to turn our gaze away from themselves.
Heat waves kill more people each year on average than hurricanes and tornadoes combined, according to the National Weather Service. The Pacific Northwest isn’t supposed to get this hot even in June, so many homes lack air conditioning — Seattle is the least air conditioned city in the U.S., with cooling in only a third of its homes. And the same populations who are most exposed to dangerous heat — the homeless, low income communities, and people of color — also have the least access to cooling.
We’re not the only ones noticing the heat. Even one of the top attorneys representing Exxon in climate liability lawsuits thought it was too hot outside. Then for some reason, he decided it was a mistake to point that out.
We can’t ignore Big Oil’s ongoing role in causing this crisis. But that’s hard to accomplish when major media outlets are still failing to make the climate connection in the first place. As Grist reporter Shannon Osaka points out, the link between these disasters and climate change has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.
While President Biden and Congress keep us waiting for federal climate action, state and local officials will need to decide whether they’ll let the enormous costs of this crisis continue to fall on their residents, or whether they’ll take action to hold the corporate polluters who caused the crisis accountable.
Back in March, the attorneys general of Oregon and Washington participated in a law school panel discussion about climate accountability. After this horrific week, it seems more urgent than ever that these officials take action to make climate polluters pay for the immeasurable damage they’re causing to their states.
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