The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Considering Damages

The fires in California are all over the news these days. The death toll keeps rising as bodies are found–two hundred people are missing, now. Generally speaking, wildfire is a climate change story, but while I want to cover current events, this story is too new, and there isn’t yet anything to say about it that I have not said about other fires before.

But if, as I suspect, the severity of this week’s fires are due in some part to climate change, then that lays the blood of the dead on the hands of climate deniers (not skeptics, there’s a difference), certain industrialists, and certain political leaders who have, decade after decade, refused to act. Same with the death and destruction of recent hurricanes, some of which have been unambiguously linked to climate change.

So, why not sue?

And, indeed, some people are suing, with varying degrees of success.

Suing for Climate

I first heard about a climate change lawsuit through social media some years ago, but since I didn’t hear a peep about the matter by any other means, I wasn’t sure it was real. Turns out, it was not only real, but what appeared on Facebook was the tip of the iceberg. There isn’t just one climate lawsuit, but many, all across the world.

If you’re interested in details, there’s actually an online database where you can look them all up. Click here to check it out.

The US has more of these suits than anywhere else in the world, and it’s somewhat easier to get information on these cases, at least for an American like me. There are two main approaches–suing fossil fuel companies and suing governments.

Suing Companies

Fossil fuel companies are being sued, not just for producing fossil fuels, but also for actively obstructing climate action, as some did by spreading misinformation and fostering public doubt about the reality of climate change.

Curiously, in the coverage I’ve read, such obstruction is generally framed as a failure to warn the public. For example, one article quotes a law professor as follows:

“The industry has profited from the manufacture of fossil fuels but has not had to absorb the economic costs of the consequences,” Koh said. “The industry had the science 30 years ago and knew what was going to happen but made no warning so that preemptive steps could have been taken.

“The taxpayers have been bearing the cost for what they should have been warned of 30 years ago,” Koh added. “The companies are now being called to account for their conduct and the damages from that conduct.”

It’s important to recognize such framing is itself misleading. Climate change, and the basic mechanics of how it works and why it’s a problem, were public knowledge 30 years go. The reason I know that is I was 11 and I remember being well-informed about it. Anything a geeky but otherwise unremarkable 11-year-old knows about is not being kept secret by Exxon, or anybody else.

The truth is that the public is culpable for climate change, as a decisive majority has spent decades now in active denial of warnings that were readily available for any interested person behind. But whatever innate resistance the citizenry may have had to climate action was actively ginned up by companies who knew better and attempted to protect their business interests at the expense of everybody else.

That’s a more nuanced, but arguably more nefarious offense.

Hopefully, suits based on calling out that nefariousness will work, because suits against energy companies for causing climate change itself are not working well. Several have been dismissed already.

It’s not that anyone has argued in court that climate change isn’t real, isn’t caused by humans, or isn’t important. Instead, these suits are failing because air pollution is already addressed by the Clean Air Act, which (for reasons I don’t personally understand) means that the issue must be handled by Congress and not by the courts. It’s also difficult to pin a particular plaintiff’s woes on an individual company. Some judges have asserted that because the problem is so big that it clearly needs Federal, even international leadership, that local or regional courts have no place in the solution.

Leaving the rest of us stuck when Federal leadership fails.

But the point is that yes, there are cities suing companies over specific climate-related damages.

Suing the Government

The lawsuit I first heard about was probably the Juliana Case, in which a group of 21 children and young adults (it’s sometimes called the “children’s case”) are suing the Federal government for not protecting their right to a livable planet. There are also similar suits against at least nine states, although some of these have been dismissed.

The Federal government has been trying very hard to get the Juliana Case dismissed before it is even heard. So far, no such attempt has been successful. The process has stretched on for some three years, now. The fact that it is still going is good news, but it’s far from clear whether the young people will win, or even if they will ever get to trial.

Winning Suits for Climate

So far, I’m not sure if any of these cases have actually won in court, at least not in the US. I haven’t heard of any. What happens if and when they do?

If the Juliana Case wins, the courts could order the Federal government to cut emissions. The situation could be analogous to school integration, which also proceeded, at times, on point of court order.

If the suits against companies win, plaintiffs could get money to use for climate change adaptation (such as cities building sea walls). Perhaps more importantly, the financial losses–and threats of financial losses–could force energy companies to get serious about transitioning to climate-sane energy sources.

The problem has been that there really aren’t any immediate negative consequences for anyone who chooses to put their narrow self-interest first. Environmentalism has lacked teeth. If the electorate refuses to hold anyone accountable for destroying our planet around us, it’s possible the courts can do something.

Course, that depends on who the judges are.

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Last Call

California, Oregon, and Washington State are on fire at present. As are Idaho, Montana, and Nevada. This past week, the number of active wildfires rose to over a hundred. 1.1 million acres have been burned. Exhausted fire crews can no longer respond to all the blazes and for the first time in almost ten years the US Army is being sent in to help. 71 fire experts from Australia and New Zealand are on their way. Towns have been evacuated, houses destroyed, people have been killed. This appears to be the big one.

It probably isn’t a coincidence that much of the region is still in a multi-year drought that has certainly been exacerbated by climate change and that July was Earth’s hottest month since record-keeping began.

I have written about the connection between climate change and wildfire before, here and here and here. I could write the same article again, about how drought and heat work together to change fire behavior and about how human activity and natural variation work together to create increasing disaster. But why? Next year there will be more fires and I’ll have another opportunity to say exactly the same things.

A day or two ago I watched an interview on TV with the parents of a fallen firefighter. I have been unable to find a transcript, or even proper attribution of the broadcast anywhere online, but the father of the young man said something along the line of “They’re saying he was a hero. And he was a hero. We’re proud of him. But we were proud of him before. We wish he wasn’t a hero; we wish he were still here with us.”

That stuck with me.

There is a human cost to climate change, and that cost is on the individual level. When we talk about increased danger from forest fires, this is what that means–an increased chance of news like this. We’re not just talking about numbers–these people have names, histories, families.

Some sources have mentioned as many as 13 firefighters dead so far this year, a somewhat high but not extraordinary number, but several of them died during training or from other circumstances not directly related to the fire. At least five were actually killed in the line of duty, although I am not certain my information is complete–there may be more, and in any case the season is not over.  When a firefighter dies, his or her companions sometimes say “she/he answered the last call.” A call being a call to duty, like a pager going off in the night, a fire. You can’t refuse to go.

Here are the names I found.

Dave Ruhl, of Rapid City, South Dakota, died on the Frog Fire in the Modic National Forest, in California. He died on Friday, July 30th , while scouting a fire zone by vehicle. His body was not found until the following morning and the specific cause of his death was not initially announced.

Ruhl, 38, was a veteran firefighter who normally worked as an engine captain for the Black Hills National Forest. He had been at Black Hills for 14 years. Earlier in life he had served with the US Coast Guard. He also used to work as a correctional officer in South Dakota. He was originally from Wisconsin. He had a wife and two children. Friends and coworkers describe him as a passionate and professional firefighter and a quiet, highly respected leader.

Michael Hallenbeck, of Shingle Springs, died Saturday, August 8th, on the Sierra Fire in El Dorado County, California, when a tree fell on him during initial attack.He is survived by his parents and his sister.

Hallenbeck, 21, was working on his first fire. He loved being a firefighter and his parents describe him as very excited about his new job. He was an avid sportsman and outdoorsman. He snowboarded, hiked, and played football, basketball, golf, and other sports. His parents are devastated, but very proud of him.

Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac, and Richard Wheeler died on August 19th in a wildfire near Twisp, Washington. While scouting a large fire that had already triggered widespread evacuation orders, their vehicle crashed and the fire overtook and burned them. Several other men who were with them survived but with severe injuries; one of the survivors was in critical condition at the time of the report.

Tom Zbyszewski, 20, was a physics major at Whitman College. This was his second summer as a firefighter. His parents worked for the Forest Service as well—his mother still does. His father is a retired firefighter and has said publicly that he wishes it were him, not his young son, who died that way.

Andrew Zajac, 26, wrestled and played football and the cello in high school before attending Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then the University of South Dakota, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. He was in his second year as a firefighter when he died. He leaves behind a spouse as well as friends and family who remember him as a hard worker, an athlete, and a man who loved the outdoors.

Richard Wheeler, 31, was a fourth-generation firefighter. He is from South Haven, Michigan, and graduated from Grand Valley State University.