California mulling change to fossil fuel liability rules

We have predicted that governments would begin enacting new laws to address the liability of fossil fuel companies for their role in causing climate change. And now we can see a first example of such legislation being debated in California, albeit on a narrow scale, through the proposed Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act. The Bill has apparently passed two Senate Committees and will shortly be debated by the California State Senate.

Unlike the model climate compensation act that we proposed in Taking Climate Justice into our own Hands (2015), the Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act does not address general liability related to climate damages.  Rather, it is focused on liability for climate misinformation and fraud committed by fossil fuel companies, but it ties that liability right back to the climate damage that Californians are experiencing:

State law provides a broad right of action to challenge “unfair” business practices. … Given the environmental, health, and economic impacts that Californians are already paying for as a result of the fossil fuel industry’s many years of public deception and their efforts to block action on climate change, it is important to hold the industry responsible. Unless the Legislature revives these claims, the state could lose the ability to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for their practices that extend back well beyond four years, as well as the damages and risks that Californians and everyone else must face for centuries to come.

The main focus of the Act is to extend the “limitation period” – the period during which claims may be brought – for actions by state and local governments in relation to misinformation by the fossil fuel companies.  However, in doing so, the Act would also confirm that the California Legislature views existing laws related to challenging “‘unfair’ business practices” as applying to fossil fuel company misinformation.

The proposed Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act represents a first example of a state changing the rules of liability specifically to address climate change related liability. It is an example of the type of conversation that we predicted would begin as climate damages, and the role of the fossil fuel companies in causing them, become more obvious:

[T]hose countries most severely impacted by climate change could adopt legislation that removes legal hurdles to climate liability. Increasingly the public may demand such legislation, rather than having the costs of climate change borne only by it victims and the general public.

What do you think – should governments enact laws to hold the fossil fuel industry liable? Should the focus of those laws be on climate denial/misinformation or on general responsibility for harm caused by climate change?


By Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel