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Will climate lawsuit produce a smoking gun?

Much like tobacco litigation, a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Keith Ellison could shed light on fossil fuel companies' dirty tricks.

John Molseed "Greenspace" column sig
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About 40 years ago, a group of scientists produced a surprisingly accurate model of human-driven climate change.

The study, completed in 1982, projected that by 2019, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would rise by about 80 parts per million to reach almost 420 parts per million. Last year, the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii recorded 415 parts per million.

(The Mauna Loa observatory began directly measuring carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 1958, which makes it the longest-running such observatory in the U.S.)

ALSO READ: Climate change in Minnesota is already here

The 1982 study concluded that such an increase in carbon dioxide would cause global surface temperatures to rise by more than 1.5 degrees from 1982 to 2020. Global surface temperatures have risen by about 1.4 degrees in that time.

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The source of the report is also a company responsible for a fair share of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — ExxonMobil.

As Inside Climate News discovered in its 2015 Pulitzer Prize reporting , the company had clear, accurate models of the effects of greenhouse gases. Instead, the company would continue to cast doubt on such conclusions.

Last year, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, the Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, and the American Petroleum Institute. The suit alleges that the companies deliberately mislead the public about climate change. In it, Ellison says Minnesota experiences around $1 billion in costs annually due to climate change.

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact cost of climate change, given the estimated costs to upgrade wastewater infrastructure and damage flooding causes to roads, bridges and other costs , $1 billion seems plausible.

Climate lawsuits have jumped in recent years, with more than 700 cities, counties, states and other levels of government suing petroleum companies since 2016.

Minnesota’s is a unique suit in that it focuses on consumer protection. Its suit alleges that the companies knew about the dangers of their products, but deliberately downplayed the risks and misled the public. About two dozen such lawsuits make similar allegations.

Delaware’s suit against 31 fossil fuel companies specifically targets the companies’ misinformation campaigns .

These suits will also likely force these companies to disclose what they knew about climate change, and what tactics they deployed to mislead the public.

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Minnesota is no stranger to this type of litigation.

The state sued tobacco companies for misleading the public. That suit blew open litigation across the country. The suit revealed some of the most damning evidence against the tobacco companies found to that point — internal company memos advocating for marketing to young people as “replacement smokers” for older smokers who were dying.

That shifted the public mood toward tobacco companies and opened the door for further litigation against them.

It’s reassuring to think this suit might do the same. However, an important lesson in the litigation against the tobacco companies was to quit smoking. Right now, we still have an unhealthy fossil fuel habit to kick, and everyone is at risk because of it.

John Molseed is a tree-hugging Minnesota transplant making his way through his state parks passport. This column is a space for stories of people doing their part (and more) to keep Minnesota green. Send questions, comments and suggestions to life@postbulletin.com .


John Molseed joined the Post Bulletin in 2018. He covers arts, culture, entertainment, nature and other fun stories he's surprised he gets paid to cover. When he's not writing articles about Southeast Minnesota artists and musicians, he's either picking banjo, brewing beer, biking or looking for other hobbies that begin with the letter "b." Readers can reach John at 507-285-7713 or jmolseed@postbulletin.com.
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