Democratic Party Promises to Let Fossil Fuel Companies Off the Hook

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The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform is revealing in what it doesn’t say about climate change.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely leave America with years of difficult economic recovery, and meanwhile, the costs of the climate crisis are mounting. Even if we were to reduce our future greenhouse gas emissions to zero by tomorrow, enough emissions are already baked into the atmosphere to continue altering the climate for years.

Who’s going to pay for rising climate costs?

On July 21, the Democratic Party released a draft of its 2020 political platform and chose not to answer this question. The Party acknowledges that “urban and rural communities alike have suffered tens of billions of dollars in economic losses” due to climate change, and that the impacts fall disproportionately on communities of color, low-income families, and Indigenous communities. But the platform responds with vague promises to “partner with states and local communities to make smart investments to avoid the loss of life and property, prevent flooding, mitigate disaster risks, and adapt to costly, growing climate impacts.”

The party’s draft platform omits key details that are crucial to diagnosing and fixing the climate crisis. It doesn’t mention how unchecked fossil fuel use has brought us to this point. Nor does it mention that the fossil fuel industry has known since the 1960s that its products were likely to cause catastrophic climate change. Nor does it mention how the fossil fuel industry continues to undermine the global climate change response through false advertising campaigns, political influence, and increased investments in the dirtiest forms of fossil fuels — like those obtained through hydraulic fracking and Canada’s tar sands.

Presumed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has diverged from his party on this question. In his Environmental Justice Plan, released in early July, Biden promises to hold corporations responsible for rampant pollution that affects Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, and specifically, to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.”

Biden’s approach aligns with efforts underway at the local government level to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its role in causing the climate crisis. Since 2017, 16 local governments and one state government (Rhode Island) have filed lawsuits against major fossil fuel companies, demanding that these companies pay their fair share of the climate costs that the communities face.

The lawsuits are based on legal theories that are similar to the ones that were used to hold the tobacco and opioid industries accountable: The companies knew for decades about the dangers of their product, concealed those dangers from the public in order to reap more profits, and should therefore pay for a portion of the resulting damages. (Note: EarthRights International represents three communities in Colorado in one of these lawsuits.)

Meanwhile, the Republican Party’s approach to climate change remains unclear. In May, the party decided to recycle its 2016 platform instead of adopting a new platform for 2020. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is reportedly leading an effort to develop a one-page party platform. However, the Trump Administration has expressed consistent support for the fossil fuel industry, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Industry lobbyists hold key cabinet positions. Many Republicans continue to refuse any proposals that might reduce fossil fuel industry profits.

The climate lawsuits are still in the early stages, and it is too soon to predict their outcome. Nevertheless, in bringing these lawsuits, local governments around the country have raised an important question that remains unaddressed by either political party — who’s going to pay the costs of climate change?

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