As part of the Climate Desk partnership, this article was originally published by the Guardian and is being reprinted here.
Oil and coal firms are accused of colluding to mislead the public about the climate problem, and the same racketeering legislation that was used to bring down mob chiefs, motorcycle gangs, football executives, and multinational fraudsters will be put to the test against them.
Communities in Puerto Rico who were devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017 are bringing a lawsuit in an attempt to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for years of deceit.
One of the regions of the world most impacted by climate change in Puerto Rico. It is the ideal location for this climate litigation because it is so dangerously situated and gets attacked from all sides by hurricanes, storm surges, heat waves, and coral bleaching, according to Melissa Sims, senior attorney for the plaintiff’s law firm Milberg.
The 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was created to fight organized crime, such as the mafia, but has subsequently been applied in civil courts to argue organized crime claims involving the harms caused by opioids, car emissions, and even e-cigarettes.
A network of paid think tanks, scientists, and other operatives is now accused of conspiring to mislead the public, primarily Puerto Ricans, about the direct connection between their greenhouse gas-emitting products and climate change in the first-ever RICO case involving climate change.
According to the lawsuit, this fossil fuel business, which is still in existence, caused numerous damages as a result of climatic calamities that the defendants knew about but chose to conceal in order to increase profits.
The plaintiffs include 16 Puerto Rican municipalities that were severely impacted by Irma and Maria in September 2017, which resulted in thousands of fatalities, severe food shortages, extensive infrastructural damage, and the longest blackout in US history.
The difference in this [RICO] case, according to senior counsel Sims, is that we have written evidence of the decision made by rival companies, their front groups, scientists, and associations to collaborate in order to sway public opinion about the use of their consumer products by spreading false information.
The defendants, which include ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Rio Tinto, formed the Global Climate Coalition as a not-for-profit corporation in 1989 to influence, advertise, and promote the interests of the fossil fuel industry by disseminating false information to their customers and the general public, according to the lawsuit filed in the US federal district court of Puerto Rico.
It contends that supposedly competitive businesses collaborated to mislead customers and create confusion in order to maintain high and lucrative fossil fuel sales and that the GCC was a propaganda apparatus specifically created to oppose the Kyoto protocol, the first significant international effort to combat climate change. A written action plan was created in 1998 to deceive customers into believing that global warming was not happening and that, even if it did, there was no scientific agreement over whether fossil fuels were to blame.
In other words, the action plan purportedly served as a climate change denial strategy that was carried out through a network of dark money invested in think tanks, research institutions, trade associations, and PR agencies. It also served as a road map for an ongoing, open-ended enterprise.
The complaint claims that the oil and coal industries understood that Puerto Rico was particularly vulnerable to climate change-related phenomena, such as hotter and wetter storms, excessive heat, and rising sea levels, as a result of the island’s geographic location.
According to the Germanwatch Climate Risk Index, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Myanmar have been the three regions most impacted by extreme weather events like storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts over the past 20 years. These events are becoming more frequent due to greenhouse gas-driven human-caused global warming. A large portion of the island was left without electricity and water in September when Hurricane Ian damaged crucial infrastructures like roads and bridges.
The lawsuit claims that the oil and coal companies, along with their international partners, are collectively accountable for at least 40% of greenhouse gases. This puts them at fault for the damages brought on by the storms of 2017 and the likelihood of the island experiencing worse climate disasters in the future.
It’s the most recent in a string of civil class actions that municipalities, towns, and cities have taken against businesses and organizations they claim have harmed locals. Cities have a nearly limitless potential to employ their nuisance statutes and local ordinances, according to Sims, who has also represented Puerto Rico towns in opioid action that led to damages reimbursement.
Republican and Christian Sims claimed that cities all around the country have realized their potential and are beginning to use it almost like miniature attorneys general. Using their rights under the racketeering and other laws we’ve helped develop over the years, they are increasingly frequently the first ones to bring lawsuits on opioids, Juul electronic cigarettes, pollution, reverse redlining, and now climate change.
Among the defendants accused of consumer fraud, racketeering, antitrust, false misrepresentation, conspiracy to deceive, product liability, and unjust enrichment are seven oil companies, three coal companies, and hundreds of organizations and operatives.
Requests for feedback from the National Mining Association and American Petroleum Institute went unanswered. In statements, a number of the defendants have criticised the litigation.