Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

California's big oil lawsuit is a 'huge deal,' Center for Climate Integrity head says


There's a giant billboard in Times Square today. It reads, California is suing to make polluters pay. Big oil knew they were causing climate change. They lied to cover it up - this after the state filed suit against several of the world's biggest oil companies.


The California suit comes on the heels of several other states and municipalities using the courts to hold the big oil companies accountable for climate change. Richard Wiles is the president of the Center for Climate Integrity, and his organization is working closely with many of the states and municipalities who have filed suits. He joins me now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RICHARD WILES: Thanks for having me on.

SUMMERS: First, just to start, how big of a deal is this California lawsuit?

WILES: This is a huge deal. California is, I think, the fifth largest economy in the world. And they're a major oil-producing state. They're the first oil-producing state to file suit against the companies for knowing and then lying about how the fact that their products cause climate change. In addition, California is a leader in climate policy, and they just have a lot of sway among other states. So, you know, in clean air regs, a lot of states follow California. In litigation, I think they could have the same effect. The case by California could, in fact, trigger more attorneys general to file. So it's a really big deal. If you're a company that's been branded as just lying about the very essence of what your products do with total disregard for the damage that it will do to society, you know, that's basis for a lawsuit, and that's basis for just a lot of trouble for the oil companies.

SUMMERS: All right. I mean, there's a lot to unpack there. But in addition to damages, the state's calling for a fund that would be used to pay for recovery from extreme weather events. Just how much money are we talking about there?

WILES: The damages in the state of California from climate change would easily go into the hundreds of billions of dollars. I mean, you could imagine a trillion dollars-worth of damages in the state of California alone over time. You know, the state is proposing what they call an abatement fund, which is basically - was established in the lead paint cases - right? - and upheld by the court. And it just says, you know, the damage that your product caused that you knew it would cause and then lied about - you know, you've got to pay to help the citizens of the state of California deal with that damage. And with climate change, as we know, it's pretty much every facet of modern life, right? You need more air conditioning. You need to deal with wildfires and floods and droughts. I mean, the list of adaptations to deal with this damage is enormous. And, you know, industries should pay their fair share, which will be billions and billions of dollars.

SUMMERS: I mean, look. There have been legislative efforts to curb climate change. There have been diplomatic efforts, so many attempts at addressing this problem. So what do you think that suing these companies directly accomplishes that these other efforts have not been able to so far?

WILES: Well, litigation is a fundamentally different strategy. It's not about climate policy. It's about holding them accountable for the damage that they knowingly caused, that they lied about, OK? So that could do a lot of things. I mean, but the main thing it will do is bring some measure of justice to the public, you know, for being lied to for all these decades and for having to deal with these damages and pay for it. I mean, that's really what it's about. If you step back a little bit and if you look at any major social transformation like climate change - and this is - you know, this is a magnitude of the social change that we're envisioning here - is - you know, it's probably unprecedented in human history.

But if you look at other major transformational social change movements like civil rights or marriage equality, they all had a litigation component to them, right? It wasn't just working for policy change to the Congress. So what this does, what these cases do is open up that flank. We don't think you can have the climate policy you need for the transition without accountability. Accountability is the first step towards solving climate change. And if we can't get accountability, it just doesn't seem like we can really solve this problem.

SUMMERS: You know, I would imagine that if we were to bring one of the representatives from one of these companies on the line, they may make the argument that lawsuits like these - they're politicized, that they're without merit. What do you say to that?

WILES: When the industry says that, that just makes me realize how on point these cases are, right? They have not yet had a single substantive critique of the core theory of these cases, which is simply that you knew that your products would cause climate change 40 years ago. We have the documents. You ran a major disinformation campaign. We have the master plan. And you need to be held accountable for that. The industry's critique of the cases never addresses the core facts of the cases. They always try to come up with some other sort of deflection message about how this is a waste of time or waste of money or whatever. Of course they think it's a waste of money to hold them accountable for the hundreds of billions of dollars of damages they are causing. What else would they say, you know? But they're wrong.

And they also know that the evidence in these cases is overwhelming, right? It's just clear as a bell that at the core complaint here being made by the states and the municipalities, that they knew and they lied and they ran a massive disinformation campaign to delay action is just supported by the documents to such a degree that they - you know, they have to sort of deflect because they the evidence is just damning.

SUMMERS: What are your hopes for this California lawsuit? What does victory look like? And is there an example out there that is similar to what you'd hope to see?

WILES: Well, we would hope that this case would trigger more cases. And we hope that ultimately, of course, that the plaintiffs, the state of California, will win, as will the other states. We hope they all win and that the companies are forced to pay their fair share of the hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars, of damages that they should pay because they knew when they lied that their products would cause all these damages. And, you know, we also hope that the narrative of climate change changes after people understand what these cases are about. You know, climate change is basically a crime against humanity. It's not a tragedy. And, you know, the industry wants us to think that it's everybody's fault and that it's some sort of tragic outcome of the use of fossil fuels that we're all going to work together to solve. But really, what it is - it's basically a crime against humanity perpetrated by the oil industry on all of us. And these cases will make that clear.

SUMMERS: Richard Wiles is the president of the Center for Climate Integrity. Thank you so much for being here today.

WILES: Thanks for having me - really appreciate it.

SUMMERS: We asked the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group and one of the defendants in the California suit, to respond to Richard Wiles' comments. And they shared a statement with us which said in part, this ongoing coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources. Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.