Local California Governments Sue Fossil Fuel Companies for Rising Sea Levels

July 26, 2017

On July 17, 2017, Marin County, San Mateo County, and the City of Imperial Beach filed three lawsuits in California Superior Court against a number of large oil, gas and coal companies. The complaints assert a variety of state law causes of action including nuisance, negligence, and trespass for injuries and damages related to rising sea levels. Specifically, the local governments contend that the defendants were aware of the impact of fossil fuel products on climate change for nearly 50 years and that these companies should now be held liable for rising sea levels associated with global warming.

Traditionally, California has taken an aggressive approach to combat the effects of climate change. As we reported last week, the California legislature recently passed legislation to extend the State’s greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program. The three new lawsuits represent another example of California governmental institutions being on the forefront of taking an aggressive approach to address climate change. Moreover, the actions are especially relevant given the Trump Administration’s recent efforts to lessen the United States’ role both domestically and on the world stage to address climate change issues.

However, the lawsuits are also an example of a recent trend of legal actions asserting more novel theories related to global warming and climate change. Last year, a federal district court in Oregon allowed another action to proceed against the federal government for its alleged failure to protect future generations against the threat of climate change. See Juliana v. United States, No. 15-1517, 2016 WL 6661146 (D. Or. Nov. 10, 2016). That case is now set for trial in early 2018.

All of the cases present a variety of complex issues and create a number of substantial hurdles that the plaintiffs must clear in order to prove their case. Nonetheless, the cases illustrate a new shift of legal influence and pressure on industries and the government to address climate change.