The GOP's War on Climate Science | Opinion

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During last week’s GOP presidential debate, the candidates punted on climate change. Vivek Ramaswamy exuberantly declared, “climate change is a hoax.” Nikki Haley, whose debate performance was otherwise reasonable, thinks China and India should reduce their carbon output first. Ron DeSantis, who rejected the form of the question, has called climate change “left-wing stuff,” and blames “wokeness” rather than escalating climate claims for the disappearance of property insurers in Florida.

Given that Republicans, with few exceptions, have consistently denied climate science, it was surprising that Fox moderators asked a climate question at all. What’s not surprising is that politicians who are deeply financed by coal, oil and gas donors will fight to protect those industries. It’s a dangerous quid pro quo that will only be neutralized when every person under the age of 35 exercises their right to vote.

Project 2025 and Republicans’ Goal to End Clean Energy

Two weeks before the debate, conservatives quietly unveiled their plan to kill climate progress even as wildfires incinerated lush-green Lahaina and southern states baked in uninhabitable heat. Targeting the Inflation Reduction Act, Project 2025 proposes to erase clean energy programs from the federal government entirely while boosting the production of fossil fuels.

Republicans are still chafing over Biden’s success in passing the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate act passed in U.S. history to incentivize and hasten the U.S. transition to a clean energy economy. The Act took effect in January 2023, and it will take at least a year before its economic benefits are felt.

Anxious to act before that happens, conservatives promulgated Project 2025, proposing to shred all regulations designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions from cars, power plants, and oil and gas wells. Distributed to all Republican presidential hopefuls in advance of the first debate, and formulated by the Heritage Foundation, the plan would dismantle virtually all federal efforts at reducing the nation’s carbon footprint in an effort to bolster American fossil fuel production.

During the debate, no candidate discussed the realities of climate destruction or how rising global temperatures are exacerbating the U.S. border problem. Nor did anyone acknowledge, own, or admit that the GOP’s rejection of atmospheric science is driven by campaign finance.

That the Heritage Foundation, and Project 2025, are financed by Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and Koch Industries, among the deepest fossil fuel pockets in the world, was also unmentioned.

Where Congress Fails to Act, States and Cities are Suing

As fossil fuel conglomerates continue to accrue staggering and politically formidable wealth, the costs of extreme weather events are falling on people who can little afford them, and who had little to do with causing them.

Faced with tribalism instead of leadership from Congress, climate victims, including states and municipalities experiencing financially ruinous floods and fires, are turning to the courts.

Targeting BP, Shell, Conoco Phillips, API, Exxon, and Chevron, plaintiffs have begun a wave of climate litigation. Armed with evidence that these corporations have understood the causal link between carbon emissions and rising temperatures for decades, 20 cities and states, including Oakland California, Baltimore Maryland, and Honolulu Hawaii are suing big oil.

Plaintiffs seek to prove that fossil fuel executives knew about climate change, understood the causal link between their product and the environment, and deliberately concealed those harms from the government as well as the public. They are proceeding with claims under state-law nuisance, strict liability, consumer protection and unfair trade practices, failure to warn, and trespass, and intend to present evidence that fossil fuel companies have long disputed climate science solely to safeguard their profits.

A Surprising Assist from SCOTUS

In an effort to dismiss climate cases under various procedural and legal doctrines, big oil defendants have sought to remove litigation from state court to federal court. To date, every court that has ruled on removal has ruled against the fossil fuel defendants by determining that the cases present state claims and are not precluded by federal law.

In April 2023, state climate claims were given an unexpected boost by the US Supreme Court when SCOTUS denied oil companies’ request to transfer a series of state lawsuits to federal court. After severely limiting the EPA’s climate efforts in West Virginia v. EPA (2022), the 2023 decision to allow climate claims to remain in state court under state statutory and common law was unexpected.

Rather than challenging the extraction and production of fossil fuels per se, plaintiffs are now challenging oil companies’ deceptive marketing, targeting big oil’s prolific disinformation campaigns and the failure to warn consumers about risks they have understood for decades. Like the late 1990s tobacco cases, these claims seek to hold the oil industry accountable for decades of conspiring to defraud the public.

None of the pending cases has yet proceeded to trial, and the defense will be powerful, but even one successful outcome could change the world.


Sabrina Haake is a 25-year litigator specializing in 1st and 14th Amendment defense. Her columns appear in OutSFL, Chicago Tribune, Salon, State Affairs, and Howey Politics. She and her wife split their time between South Florida and Chicago. Follow her on substack.

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