From Twitter to Instagram, Exxon’s social media posts have been cited as greenwashing in recent lawsuits brought by state and local governments. The suits ask oil majors like Exxon to help cover the costs of addressing hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters fueled by rising global temperatures.
For instance, the lawsuit filed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio targets Exxon for bragging on Instagram about its commitment to capturing carbon dioxide. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed a suit, which she amended last year, criticizing Exxon for boasting on Instagram about its research into algae as a potential biofuel.
“In a November 2020 Instagram post, ExxonMobil boasted that, ‘over the last 40 years, we have cumulatively captured the most CO2 of any company,’” the New York City’s suit reads. “The ad omitted that during that same period of time, ExxonMobil’s operations and the use of its fossil fuel products have been one of the single largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions emitted into the earth’s atmosphere.”
The number of climate change-related cases worldwide more than doubled in the past six years, according to recent data from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics. More than 1,000 cases globally have been brought in the last six years, since the Paris Agreement in 2015 — with 191 new climate change cases being filed between May 2020 and May 2021. This compares to about 800 cases filed from 1986 to 2014.
Corporations should also be wary of potential actions that can occur outside of the courtroom, explain Mark Clarke and Clare Connellan, partners at international law firm White & Case. The rising sense of urgency to mitigate the effects of climate change has prompted shareholders to utilize traditional business mechanisms, such as voting on environmental resolutions at annual meetings to decrease the company’s carbon footprint.
In the 1990s, attorneys general from all 50 states sued the largest U.S. tobacco companies over their alleged deception about the harmful health effects of smoking cigarettes and the addictive nature of nicotine. The suits culminated in a $206 billion master settlement agreement in 1998.
So far, the climate liability lawsuits against fossil fuel companies have been tied up by procedural issues over whether they belong in state or federal court. Lawyers for the oil companies have been fighting to bump the cases to federal court, which is seen as a more favorable venue for the industry.
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