We just lived through the hottest month in recorded history
by Dave Loughran
“This is a case that seeks damages and equitable relief for harmaused to Multnomah County by Defendants’ execution of a scheme to rapaciously sell fossil fuel products and deceptively promote them as harmless to the environment, while they knew that carbon pollution emitted by their products into the atmosphere would likely cause deadly extreme heat events like that which devastated Multnomah County in late June and early July 2021.”
County of Multnomah v. Exxon Mobil Corp. et al (23-cv-25164, Multnomah County Circuit Court)
On June 22, Multnomah County, home to Portland Oregon, became the first U.S. county to sue fossil fuel companies and others deemed responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions contributing to extreme heat events like the unprecedented heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest in 2021. Among the County’s allegations:
- The 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave was the hottest event in the region ever recorded
- Mortality rates doubled during the seven-day heat wave; hundreds of individuals required emergency and critical care
- Multnomah County was forced to deploy extraordinary resources to provide emergency health care to those suffering heat-related illness, shelter individuals with inadequate access to cooling, combat crime and violence induced by the heat wave, and prepare for the next event
- The Pacific Northwest heat wave was 150 times less likely to have occurred in the absence of anthropogenic climate change; escalating greenhouse gas emissions now makes such an event likely to occur once every five to ten years
- Defendants have known for decades that greenhouse gasses emitted by their products could cause catastrophic events like the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave, yet they deliberately misled the public to think otherwise
CoMeta’s litigation tracker records 27 complaints filed to date by cities, counties, and states seeking to hold “big oil” and other major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions liable for damages caused by climate change, but the Multnomah complaint is the first to seek damages specifically tied to a heat wave event. The unprecedented heat waves blanketing much of the United States this summer will likely lead others to follow suit.
Climate change litigation has the potential to spread far beyond the defendants named in complaints filed thus far and, as such, presents a material aggregation risk in casualty portfolios. We’ve recently released a series of climate liability disaster scenarios in CoMeta that include events in which insureds are held directly liable for their greenhouse gas emissions, events in which they are held liable for failing to prepare for climate-related disasters, and events in which they are held liable for human health impacts of products that contribute to climate change. CoMeta’s suite of climate liabiltiy disaster scenarios now includes:
- Extreme heat: U.S. regional heat waves. There is broad scientific consensus that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gasses are increasing the frequency, severity, and duration of extreme heat events. Exposure to excess heat during a heat wave can cause severe injury including kidney impairment, heat stroke, and death. Children and the elderly are particularly susceptible to the ill effects of excess heat as are outdoor workers and socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals with limited access to air conditioning. In these scenarios, heat waves in the central U.S., northeastern U.S., and Southern California lead to large numbers of heat-related illnesses and deaths. In the wake of each heat wave, individuals residing in nursing homes and substandard housing, children in daycare centers, and hospital patients file lawsuits against nursing homes, residential real estate companies, daycare centers, and hospitals and injured outdoor workers file claims for Workers’ Compensation benefits.
- Extreme heat: Rising death toll. The number of deaths caused by excess heat has risen significantly over the past few decades along with the attendant cost of treating heat-related illness. In this scenario, state attorneys general file suit against oil and gas companies and other major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions seeking to recover the costs of treating individuals suffering from heat-related illness under public health insurance programs.
- U.S. dengue epidemic. Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral infection that has the potential to develop into lethal disease. Models suggest that with climate change, much of the southeastern United States will be suitable for dengue transmission by 2050. In this scenario, a dengue epidemic spreads throughout the United States affecting residents of 39 states and the District of Columbia. Outdoor workers who contracted the virus at work claim Workers’ Compensation benefits, while residents of nursing homes and substandard housing units sue under traditional third-party tort claiming owners failed to maintain buildings in a manner that would prevent the transmission of mosquito-borne dengue.
- Industrial meat. Americans consume more than 200 pounds of animal meat per capita annually. This meat is produced almost entirely in industrial facilities in which animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered. Meat consumption accounts for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is a major source of local air and water pollution, and is linked to a wide array of chronic disease conditions including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type II diabetes. In this scenario, state and federal governmental plaintiffs file suit to recover damages attributable to industrial meat’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the adverse effect of industrial meat consumption on the incidence of chronic disease in the United States.
- Microplastic. Microplastic has become a ubiquitous pollutant throughout the world contaminating ecosystems, food supplies, and water sources. Plastic production is also a growing source of carbon emissions. While the human health effects of microplastic contamination are just beginning to be understood, pressure is already mounting for governments to protect public health by setting limits on the permissible level of microplastic in drinking water systems. In this scenario, state and federal authorities establish standards for microplastic in drinking water and wastewater effluent that require publicly- and privately-owned water systems to install and operate costly new water treatment technologies. As in the ongoing litigation over per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in drinking water, these water systems sue a wide-range of potentially responsible parties seeking to recover the cost of removing microplastic to levels that meet new standards.
- Diesel exhaust. Diesel combustion is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. There is also growing evidence that exposure to diesel exhaust can cause a variety of disease conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and adverse cardiovascular outcomes such as high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, heart failure, and stroke. In these scenarios, the federal government and state attorneys general file suit in state and federal courts seeking to recover the cost of treating diesel induced ASD and cardiovascular disease under Medicare and state Medicaid programs. Defendants include oil refineries, port operations, railroads, trucking companies, and truck, bus, locomotive, and diesel engine manufacturers. Local governments also file suit seeking to recover the cost of providing special education services to autistic children. In some scenario variants, individual plaintiffs file traditional personal injury lawsuits as well.
Each climate liability disaster scenario posits causes of action, plaintiff damages, implicated commercial activities, and specific company settlements and defense costs that allow insurers to measure how these events aggregate in their casualty books. CoMeta’s cross-line (GL/D&O) clash scenario analysis feature makes it easy to monitor and explore climate liability aggregations and devise strategies for limiting exposure going forward. Simply upload your casualty book and within minutes you’ll be reviewing detailed scenario exposure and loss estimates by line of business, policy year, industry, company, and policy.
Look out for additional climate liability disaster scenarios to be released over the coming months including methane greenwashing, greenhouse gas public nuisance, hydraulic fracturing, and natural gas stoves. Contact your account manager to learn more.