In a live podcast recorded on stage at SXSW, California’s former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told Politico that he is in talks with several private law firms to sue the oil industry for what he calls “first degree murder.”
Schwarzenegger alleges that because the oil industry has known since 1959 about the climate and health damage their products cause, they should be held liable for that damage. “I don’t think there’s any difference,” says Schwarzenegger, “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 the oil companies.”
He likens this proposed lawsuit to what happened with the tobacco industry. “The tobacco industry knew for years and years and years and decades, that smoking would harm people, would kill people, would create cancer, and they were hiding that fact from the people and denied it. Then eventually they were taken to court and they had to pay hundreds of billions of dollars because of that.”
This is essentially the same thing as what oil has been doing for the last half century. They did it once with leaded gasoline, which was tremendously harmful and yet they successfully argued otherwise for decades when there was plenty of evidence showing otherwise. They’re doing it again with climate change, with analyses of internal documents showing that big oil firms (Exxon in this case) knew internally about the dangers of their products and intentionally misled the public about them.
In addition to the settlements the tobacco industry had to pay, they also had to stop targeted advertising to young people, to contribute to anti-smoking efforts particularly for youth, and affix warning labels to their products telling consumers how dangerous they are. Smoking rates have been steadily declining in the US for decades now for adults, but prior to these court decisions youth smoking rates were on the rise. Afterwards, with the actions the tobacco companies were forced to take, the upward trend in youth smoking reversed and now high school students smoke less than adults do.
Schwarzenegger hasn’t stated exactly what remedies he will seek or when the lawsuit will be filed, but at a bare minimum he suggested that any fossil product – gas stations, cars, etc. – should come with a warning label letting consumers know how dangerous they are, just as tobacco companies had to do. He thinks this will encourage consumers to “go to an alternative route…hydrogen engine, electric cars, hybrid cars or something that will reduce the pollution in America and around the world.”
Schwarzenegger is right. Big Oil has been getting away with murder and ought to pay for it.
But likening this to tobacco companies does not rightly convey the scale of destruction which oil companies have wrought on the world. As bad as cigarettes are, their effects are largely local to each tobacco user and their immediate environment, not global. The oil industry’s actions have caused problems on a much grander scale than tobacco companies ever did.
The various court judgments and settlements against the tobacco industry were historic, and the industry agreed to pay hundreds of billions of dollars for their actions. But this pales in comparison to the damages that dirty energy has caused over the years. As Schwarzenegger pointed out in his speech, the World Health Organization estimates that 6.5 million people die from air pollution worldwide every year, much of which comes from the burning of oil. The Lancet has similar numbers, with 6.5 million dying from air pollution a total of 9 million dying from all forms of pollution.
According to the Lancet study above, and also according to this International Monetary Fund working paper, dirty energy as a whole benefits from roughly $5 trillion in subsidies globally per year, with about $600 billion of that in the US alone. This applies to all dirty energy combined so oil isn’t responsible for all of that $600 billion themselves (coal is part of it too), but considering they have been benefitting from these subsidies for their entire existence, over a century, a settlement in the range of $200 billion, like the tobacco settlement was, hardly sounds like enough.
If the oil industry has knowingly killed so many, and done so while benefitting from massive, trillion-dollar subsidies, they need to pay back that money, and pay restitution for the deaths they have knowingly caused. If they can’t afford to clean up after themselves, then their business should not be allowed to continue operating. It seems simple enough: if your business requires you to kill in order to stay profitable, requires you to force others to pay the cost of your business, then your business should not exist.
Thankfully, one of the lawyers involved in the tobacco settlement has his sights on big oil, and could very well be associated with the private firms Schwarzenegger has been talking to for his lawsuit. But the tobacco settlement was negotiated through state attorneys general and the US government, not just private law firms.
And here, just like with tobacco, states and/or the federal government (or even international governments) ought to get involved. This is a national (and global) public health issue, this is something that affects everyone, not just members of a specific legal class. This needs more than a class action suit, it needs governments, representing all of their people, to push back against these murderous companies.
New York Attorney General Schneiderman just announced a court win against the EPA, forcing them to implement follow the Clean Air Act which they have been ignoring. AG Schneiderman has been leading several efforts alongside other state attorneys general to hold Scott Pruitt’s Environmental “Protection” Agency accountable to their mandate of protecting the environment.
And Schwarzenegger’s successor as Governor of California, Jerry Brown, has been no stranger to environmental advocacy either. With the lack of American national leadership at international climate conferences, Jerry Brown has stepped in as the United States’ de facto representative at international climate forums. Since California’s clean air laws tend to lead the country and several other states automatically accept the California Clean Air Resources Board‘s regulations, often a change in California law is effectively the same as a change in federal law with respect to clean air regulations.
With their recent climate leadership, AG Schneiderman and Gov. Brown should join Schwarzenegger in his lawsuit. Other states should join in too, and national governments worldwide should pursue their own efforts to hold big oil accountable. Our governments need to step in and protect the rights of their people to life over the rights of polluting industry to make a little more profit.
If you think NY AG Schneiderman should direct his coalition of state attorneys general at this lawsuit, you can feel free to call his office at (800) 771-7755 then press 1, 3, 1 to leave a polite voicemail with his Environmental Protection Bureau. If you think CA Gov. Jerry Brown should get involved, you can call his comment line at (916) 445-2841 and press 1, 6 to speak politely to a representative. If you live in one of the other states from Schneiderman’s recent coalition that sued the EPA (CO, IL, IA, ME, MD, MA, MN, OR, PA, RI, VA, WA, DC), you can call your state Governor or AG as they have shown some interest in environmental issues and thus may already be amenable to this idea. If you live in any other state and still feel strongly about this, feel free to call your Governor too.