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US Petroleum Giants Face a Reckoning

After a century of wielding extraordinary economic and political power, US petroleum giants face a reckoning for the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuels. But that's only half of it.

Even more strikingly, the nearly two dozen lawsuits by cities and states are underpinned by claims that the industry aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades of lies and deceit that hid warnings from their own scientists about the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and duped the American public accordingly.

The environmentalist Bill McKibben once characterized the fossil fuel industry’s behavior as “the most consequential cover-up in US history”. And now for the first time in decades, the lawsuits chart a path toward public accountability that climate activists say has clear echoes of big tobacco’s downfall after it suppressed the true dangers of smoking, reports The Guardian.

“We are at an inflection point,” said Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment. “Things have to get worse for the oil companies,” he added. “The discovery of pretty clearcut wrong doing - that they knew their product was bad and they were lying to the public - really weakens the industry’s ability to resist legislation and settlements.”

The legal process is expected to take years. But, there is some good news within this historic bad news, as climate activists see opportunities long before verdicts are delivered. If the past is anything to go by, those developments could alter public opinion in favour of regulations that the oil and gas companies have, thus far successfully, spent years fending off.

A raft of other recent victories for climate activists already points to a shift in the industry’s power. Last month, for example, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45 percent by the end of the decade. The same day, in Houston, an activist hedge fund forced three new directors on to the board of the US’s largest oil firm, ExxonMobil, to address climate issues.

On 22 June, a group of lawyers published a definition of a mooted new international law to make environmental damage a crime. They defined ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”. There is optimism that it will be adopted by the parties to the International Criminal Court, so it joins the four existing international laws the court oversees (such as genocide and war crimes), and starts truly scaring people from committing “unlawful or wanton acts."

It feels like the tide is finally turning.


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