"This is Big Oil's Big Tobacco moment"

The effort to make fossil fuel companies pay for the climate crisis is heating up.

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

It’s Monday! And it’s fall. Things are good, things are nice.

Have you drank any water yet? If you haven’t, consider it. Water is tight. Also, consider bananas. They’re basically pure carbohydrates. And you’ll need all the energy you can get for today’s issue, which is about how Big Oil companies spent years mimicking Big Tobacco’s business strategies as a way to gain profit, but as a result, are now facing the same threat Big Tobacco faced:

Death by litigation.

A big week for climate litigation

Image credit: Johnny Silvercloud/Flickr

There are three important things happening this week in the world of climate liability, which is a fancy legal term for “tryna make extremely rich fossil fuel executives pony up for the climate hellscape their product has caused/is causing.”

1) Exxon is going to trial over claims of climate fraud.

There are 14 ongoing lawsuits across the country seeking to hold fossil fuel companies liable for climate damage. This case, however, is the first one to go to trial, InsideClimate reports. It starts tomorrow, and is expected to last about three weeks.

The lawsuit, if successful, could have huge financial implications for Exxon. The state’s Attorney General Letitia James has accused the company of misleading its investors by downplaying the potential costs of carbon emissions by billions of dollars.

So climate activists will be watching the trial with bated breath. “For decades, Exxon has known its business practices were driving climate change and instead of sounding the alarm, it used every tool at its disposal to mislead the public, defraud its own shareholders and block just climate policy,” said Sriram Madhusoodanan, the deputy campaigns director at Corporate Accountability, in an emailed statement. “People have already found Exxon guilty, but as [James] begins opening arguments, Exxon is officially on trial.”

2) Massachusetts is expected to file a new lawsuit against Exxon.

Bloomberg reports that Massachusetts’ Attorney General Maura Healey is prepared to file a similar lawsuit against Exxon this week—one that accuses the company of “deceiving consumers about the climate-warming impacts of fossil fuels.”

Exxon is already fighting back, however, and has filed an emergency motion with a Massachusetts judge seeking to delay any court proceedings until the New York trial is over. Exxon’s lawyers accused Healey of using the lawsuit threat to gain media attention, and called it “an intentional and cynically transparent ploy to distract ExxonMobil from its trial preparations.”

Healey’s office shot back, calling Exxon’s attempt to delay proceedings “absurd” and “blatantly obstructionist.”

3) The House will hold one of the first Congressional hearings focused on climate liability.

Specifically, the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will examine on Wednesday “how the oil industry’s climate denial campaign has negatively and disproportionately affected people of color and vulnerable populations in our country and around the world,” according to a hearing memo. It continues:

Decades of climate denialism by the oil industry forestalled meaningful government action to avert the current crisis. As early as the 1970s, oil giants like Exxon knew that climate change was real and that the burning of fossil fuels was a major contributor to the problem.2 Exxon was at the forefront of climate research, hoping to establish itself as a credible voice when the time came to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Just a few years later, however, Exxon began undermining the science from its own Research and Engineering Company with a campaign of climate change denial to delay government regulations in the United States and globally.

That campaign continues today, as the oil industry continues to fund trade groups and think tanks that push anti-climate action agendas. This denial campaign represents a dangerous distortion of democracy, as powerful, moneyed interests control the conversation and drown out the voices of average Americans who are paying the price of climate change.

A former Exxon scientist and a former Exxon consultant will testify at the hearing, as will Sharon Eubanks, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who prosecuted and won the massive racketeering case against Big Tobacco, which resulted in the industry paying out billions to local, state, and federal governments to deal with the negative health impacts of their product.

How Big Oil mimics Big Tobacco

I was struck when I saw Sharon Eubanks’ name on the list of people testifying at Wednesday’s hearing. Because exactly four years ago—literally, exactly four years to the day I wrote this newsletter—I interviewed her about the case she prosecuted against the tobacco industry.

The parallels were as clear then as they are today. “The cigarette companies actively denied the harm of cigarette smoking, and concealed the results of what their own research developed,” Eubanks told me at the time. “The motivation was money, and to avoid regulation.”

Documents revealed three years ago by the Center for International Environmental Law found that the oil and tobacco industries have been using not only the same strategy, but the the same people, to downplay the dangers of their products. “From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and same research institutes, but many of the same researchers,” CIEL President Carroll Muffett said in a statement. “Again and again we found both the PR firms and the researchers worked first for oil, then for tobacco. It was a pedigree the tobacco companies recognized and sought out.”

And today, former tobacco people are back working in support of the oil industry—by helping to dismantle climate regulations within the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency.

The thing about copying the tobacco industry, though…

is that the tobacco industry was decimated by lawsuits. It ultimately had to pay $246 billion to settle litigation over its deception.

So climate activists are hopeful that history might repeat itself.

“In the 1990’s, lawsuits and investigations advanced by state attorneys general held Big Tobacco liable for its abuses and made way for a new era of public health policy around the world,” Madhusoodanan said. “Now, people, cities, states and potentially entire nations are calling for Big Polluters like Exxon Mobil to be held to account.”

“This is Big Oil’s Big Tobacco moment,” he continued. “And a warning for Big Polluters across the globe and the industries that continue to enable them in fueling the climate crisis. Their days are numbered and it’s time to Make Them Pay.”

HOT ACTION: Some follows

Last week, all of HEATED’s issues focused on indigenous peoples. One issue in particular focused on the lack of media coverage of tribal affairs, and included suggestions of a few Native journalists and activists to follow for a more well-rounded feed.

Well, guess what—I got EVEN MORE suggestions for Native journalist and activist follows in my “hot action” inbox, so I’m going to include them below.

Also, the address for that inbox is at action@heated.world, and you should email me there if you have other suggestions for tangible actions people might like to take to combat the climate crisis.

Anyway, indigenous journalists/activists to follow, courtesy of HEATED readers:

Also, do 10 push-ups. That one’s from me.

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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Questions or comments about today’s issue? E-mail me: emily@heated.world

Suggestions for hot action? E-mail them to: action@heated.world