Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
With lawsuits against 26 companies, the city joins other U.S. cities and states that have gone to court for climate reparations.
The tide of climate litigation is rising. On Friday, the City of Baltimore announced lawsuits against 26 oil and gas companies for damages their fossil-fuel products—and the climate change they’ve compelled—have inflicted on the city.
“For 50 years, these companies have known their products would cause rising seas and the other climate change-related problems facing Baltimore today,” Solicitor Andre Davis said in a press conference on July 20. “They could have warned us. They could have taken steps to minimize or avoid the damage. In fact, they had a responsibility to do both, but they didn’t, and that’s why we are taking them to court.”
Baltimore joins 13 other cities and states that have sued for climate reparations. Most suits are still pending, and a few have been dealt blows: New York’s suit, filed in January, was dismissed by a federal judge in Manhattan on Thursday. San Francisco’s and Oakland’s lawsuits were dismissed in June.
But climate advocates say the fates of these suits have little to do with the potential impact of Baltimore’s. Whereas New York, San Francisco, and Oakland filed their suits in federal court, Baltimore has followed the lead of jurisdictions like Boulder and Rhode Island, filing in state court. “They have a higher chance of success because of more favorable state doctrine,” Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at the UCLA School of Law, told Sierra. “The New York case may have no impact on the Baltimore case,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity.
Baltimore’s suit also names significantly more companies and offenses than New York’s or San Francisco’s: 26 companies are implicated—including Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and Citgo—and eight offenses will be argued, ranging from public nuisance to violations of Maryland’s Consumer Protection Act.
“Cities have been a real shining light on taking action to address climate change—with their building codes; with their decisions about transportation; with their ability to make sure that their buildings are efficient—and they’ve been an important worldwide instigator of the change we need,” Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told CityLab.
The fact that the suit comes from Baltimore, which has had a lower profile in the realm of climate activism compared to places like New York or San Francisco, “shows that this isn’t just for super-large cities,” Kimmell said. “The impacts of climate change and the need to protect their citizens is something that small cities and big cities alike can take part in.”
Baltimore’s vulnerability to climate change is partly a matter of geography. Its waterfront is 60 miles long, exposing it to rising sea levels, particularly in the low-lying areas like the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, and Canton, which have been the focus of much recent development. Like many cities globally, it’s been struck by dangerous heat waves and historically intense rainfall events. In May, flash flooding in the nearby suburb of Ellicott City killed a man and heavily damaged a historic community only two years after a similar “1,000-year storm” tore apart the same town.
The risks of rising seas are even greater in nearby Annapolis, where chronic inundation is endangering the city’s historic downtown, or on Maryland’s low-lying Eastern Shore. Zoom into the below map, made by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Esri, to see the Mid-Atlantic’s most flood-prone regions.
But in Baltimore, a city with a median income of $42,665 and an unemployment rate of 11.8 percent where nearly a quarter of residents are living under the poverty line, the costs of climate mitigation can hit harder. As the UCS noted in a press release: “These impacts will ripple far beyond property values … Poverty and such climate-related threats as coastal flooding intersect to create hotspots of heightened risk. And people living in these communities that stand to lose the most have the least amount of resources to adapt or relocate to safer areas.”
It’s not only the cost of rebuilding in the wake of extreme weather events, says CCI’s Wiles, though those are significant. It’s the increase to all infrastructure spending as a result. “Every infrastructure upgrade has an added climate cost,” he said. “What these cities are realizing is that they’re facing hundreds of millions in climate adaptation costs to … prepare for climate change. Why should taxpayers pay that when it’s the polluters who caused the problem, by knowingly selling products that they knew would cause climate change?”
Baltimore and other cities’ suits resemble those that cities are filing against pharmaceutical companies across the U.S., meant to hold the businesses financially accountable for their role in supplying the opioid epidemic. Both strategies are building upon the work of tobacco litigators in the ‘90s, whose efforts resulted in a payout from Big Tobacco of over $200 billion.
A more critical mass, then, might be necessary to make a real financial impact on oil and gas companies, whose combined budgets are far larger than those of city governments. But while moves toward fossil-fuel divestment by individual cities have been criticized for their largely symbolic nature—signaling and perhaps encouraging mass disavowal, but making little individual impact on these massively wealthy corporations—the lawsuits these cities have pursued are more straightforward.
Instead of placing the burden on taxpayers to foot the climate-related bill, they’re trying to push it to the companies who “concealed the dangers, sought to undermine public support for greenhouse gas regulation, and engaged in massive campaigns to promote the ever-increasing use of their products at ever greater volumes,” as Baltimore put it in a press release.
“They’re not saying anything about emissions, they’re not saying, ‘Don’t sell gasoline,’” said Wiles. “They’re just saying: You started the [denial] movement, you won, and now you have to pay.”