The former governor of the state of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has recently announced that he will be suing different oil companies for their decisions to “knowingly kill people” through climate change. Schwarzenegger recently made the announcement when he appeared on Politico’s Off-Message podcast, recorded at SXSW, announcing his intention to prosecute a number of oil companies and accusing the companies of irresponsibly polluting the environment and exacerbating global warming.
Schwarzenegger’s lawsuit against the oil companies isn’t the first lawsuit to be planned this year. Schwarzenegger’s announcement of his intention to file a lawsuit against oil companies comes shortly after a similar announcement was made by New York City. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, advocates for the Paris agreement, announced their intention to go after the companies which have profited from climate change, making plans to sue five different oil companies including ExxonMobil and BP. The two lawsuits represent an active effort by state and city governments, environmental activists, and private interests to hold oil companies accountable for a perceived lack of integrity and environmental responsibility.
Schwarzenegger used different rhetoric than Governor Cuomo when announcing his intention to sue oil companies. Schwarzenegger said that oil companies are effective “knowingly killing people all over the world” by refusing to curb emissions that contribute to global warming. Comparisons were made to the tobacco industry, which had argued against the assertions that their products harmed people’s health.
Emissions generated during the refining and combustion of fossil fuels, as well as the creation of petroleum products, are linked with the exacerbation of global climate change. When fossil fuels are burned they give off air pollutants like carbon dioxide, which contribute to the warming of the globe through the greenhouse effect. The globe’s warming is leading to deadly heat waves and rising sea levels which threaten to swallow up oceanside communities. Furthermore, the combustion of fossil fuels also releases chemical compounds like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and various forms of particulate matter which are correlated with the development of respiratory and cardiovascular ailments, as well as cancer.
“To me, it’s absolutely irresponsible to know that your product is killing people and not have a warning label on it, like tobacco… if you walk into a room and you know you’re going to kill someone, it’s first-degree murder. I think it’s the same thing with oil companies.”
Schwarzenegger says that the tobacco industry once tried to deny the damage done by their products, even though they had known for decades that their products caused cancer and killed people. Despite this, cigarettes and tobacco were labeled with appropriate warning labels after the Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was signed in 2009.
Labeling Fossil Fuel Products
The comparison to the tobacco industry may not be such a bad analogy, as it turns out that similar to the tobacco industry, the impact of emissions on global climate change was known by corporations like ExxonMobil for around 40 years. A recent study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters found that researchers employed by the company found evidence that fossil fuel emissions were linked to climate change beginning around 1977.
Schwarzenegger says he wants to ensure that products which are made with fossil fuels are labeled in some form. The former Governor says it’s irresponsible to know that a product you create is killing people and not to have some form of warning label on the product. A labeling mandate for products made with fossil fuels would have to cover a vast majority of the products that consumers in the United States use, as fossil fuels like natural gas are used to create most of the plastic products which are used in the US. The overuse of plastics has created its own issues, such as the increasing amount of plastic trash that litters landfills, landscapes, and the ocean.
Schwarzenegger did not say exactly which oil companies he was planning to sue. He also did not state exactly when the lawsuit would be moving forward, though his statements could imply sometime in the next half year. Schwarzenegger acknowledges that he’ll be fighting an uphill battle to get products created with fossil fuels labeled. Schwarzenegger says that oil companies represent a powerful and influential industry, yet he hopes that even if the lawsuit isn’t successful the lawsuits may bring more awareness to issues regarding climate change, possibly reducing climate change denial and prompting people to become more open to alternative forms of energy generation.
More Lawsuits To Come?
The lawsuits drafted by Schwarzenegger and New York City are likely to be just part of a wave of legal action against oil companies. Reuters recently monitored lawsuits brewing against oil companies, and some industry analysts predict that oil companies will begin to see even more legal opposition in the coming months and years. The lawsuits are likely to be driven by more data which identifies just how responsible certain oil companies are for the increase in global temperatures. Research done by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that the 50 largest oil companies were cumulatively responsible for about 16% of global temperature increases in the years between 1800 and 2010.
The wave of lawsuits and activism arising out of state/city governments and environmental activists over the past half year is likely driven by frustration with inaction at the federal government level. As an example, Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, recently opined that it would be up to local government to drive forward reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases and pursue alternative forms of energy. Bloomberg was critical of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement but said that the US would remain committed to the agreement anyway, motivated mainly by grassroots movements and leaders in the public and private sectors. Bloomberg has donated millions of dollars to the Environmental Defense Fund, and has argued that “…even if it’s not the American government, it’s the American people that are behind this.”
Bloomberg’s statement and the lawsuit being brought forth against oil companies are reflective of a growing divide between the federal government and many US citizens on the issue of climate change. US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently said that the agency should work closely with energy companies who are aiming to drill for gas and oil on public lands. Zinke also advocated for a quicker permit process for energy infrastructure, saying that having investors undergo a long review process is “un-American”.
Zinke also recently argued that alternative forms of energy like wind turbines were bad for the environment, saying wind turbines contribute a “significant” amount of carbon to the atmosphere and kill hundreds of thousands of birds a year. (Estimates of the pollution released by wind turbines are less than 3% of the pollution generated by coal and natural gas plants. Oil pits are also credited with killing far more birds every year than collisions with wind turbines.)
It remains to be seen how the lawsuits brought forth by New York City and Schwarzenegger will pan out, and how the federal government will react to the challenges by state and city governments.