Attorney pushing lawsuit says climate change will cost Fort Lauderdale billions

By Brian Brueggemann | Nov 12, 2018

Fort Lauderdale officials say their 165 miles of canals, which serve as a drainage system, are no longer effective against rising seas and heavier rainfalls.   City of Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale will have to spend billions of dollars to adapt to the effects of climate change, according to a lawyer who wants the city to file a suit seeking damages from the oil and gas industry.

But a critic of the type of lawsuit being considered by the city says the effort is misguided, and could hurt American consumers who rely on oil and gas.

The Fort Lauderdale City Commission heard a proposal last month from Earthrights International, an advocacy group that has offered to sue on behalf of the city, at no cost. According to the group, about a dozen other U.S. cities have filed similar suits against oil and gas companies.

Attorney Marco Simons, the group’s program director, says the suits “primarily seek reimbursement for some of the costs of adapting to climate change and its impacts -- which likely requires billions of dollars for Fort Lauderdale.”

Bill McCollum  

Fort Lauderdale officials believe climate change is responsible for rising sea levels that have caused increased flooding in the city. City leaders say Fort Lauderdale’s 165 miles of canals, which serve as a drainage system, are no longer effective against rising seas and heavier rainfalls.

Simons said the argument in climate change lawsuits is not that all uses of fossil fuels are wrongful.

“It is that the fossil fuel industry, for years, pursued a strategy of reckless production while knowing that it would result in serious climate impacts -- and both concealing and misleading the public about that knowledge,” Simons said. “Industry scientists were urging the companies, decades ago, that there was little or no time left to make the shift away from fossil fuels. So, it is disingenuous for the industry to now claim that there are no viable alternatives, when they played a huge role in ensuring that no one was looking for alternatives until it was too late.”

But Bill McCollum, a former congressman and attorney general for Florida, says suing oil and gas companies “for anticipated damages from a climate change-related rise in sea levels is not a constructive way to address the issue.”

For one thing, McCollum said, there would be no way to fairly apportion any damages suffered by different communities, or to fairly apportion the blame on various industries and companies.

“Assuming all allegations the trial firms are using in their pitches were true, proving the type injury involved was caused by oil companies will be difficult, if not impossible,” McCollum said.

Critics of the suits also argue that the issue is too big and complicated to be decided by a judge presiding over a single lawsuit. Rather, they say, the issue should be addressed by regulatory agencies. McCollum says consumers across the country could be affected by such litigation.

“Most Americans want oil and gas to drive their cars and trucks and make electricity, and we are still a long way from alternatives being able to meet more than a small percentage of the demand,” McCollum said.

Simons said the courts are exactly the place for the issue to be handled. The courts “always have a role in compensating for injury due to wrongdoing,” Simons said.

“You could make the same argument about tobacco, or lead paint, or asbestos, or MTBE, or any number of other major issues where the courts have granted relief to people harmed by negligent and wrongful conduct,” Simons said.

He added: “As far as I can tell, there is no comprehensive public policy to provide resources to communities facing impacts from climate change, and there are no federal regulatory agencies with the mandate to consider this. This kind of case is not about regulating Co2 emissions, it's about compensating for the harms of climate change. If anyone is making that argument, I would urge you to press them about exactly what federal agency has the power to address this issue.”

Solar energy, according to Simons, is becoming a viable alternative. Simons said even if society and corporations choose to continue relying on and producing fossil fuels, the companies “should do so while paying for their costs.”

He added, “You could say that drivers should not be held responsible for injuries caused by collisions, because there are no viable alternatives to driving, and even the safest traffic system will still have injuries. But that would be ridiculous -- people harmed by such actions should be compensated.”

Climate change lawsuits filed by cities against oil and gas companies have not enjoyed success – at least not yet.

For example in July, a federal judge dismissed a suit that New York City filed against five major oil companies. ConocoPhillips, in a statement released afterward, said: “We are pleased that a second federal court judge has agreed that climate change is a global issue that requires global policies and solutions addressed through the U.S. legislative and executive branches, not the courts.”

McCollum said more study is needed.

“Whatever the cause, ice is melting and sea levels appear on an upward, rising trajectory,” McCollum said. “In my opinion Governor-elect (Ron) DeSantis would be wise to create a task force or commission bringing affected cities and counties together to calculate projected costs and damages to our state and engage federal officials and Congress to develop and fund a plan to address the problem.”

McCollum said climate change lawsuits filed by cities are part of a trend, where local governments are suing corporations over a host of products, such as guns and opioids.

“Large, national trial firms looking to make a big contingency fee killing are the driving force behind the recent proliferation of public nuisance lawsuits being filed by localities,” McCollum said. "They’re looking for the next tobacco case and are not content just to deal with state attorneys general as in the past or rely on traditional class actions."

Simons said that, to his knowledge, city leaders have not had additional public action or discussion on the proposed lawsuit. Efforts to reach Mayor Dean Trantalis for comment were not successful.

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