Steve Berman is perhaps best known for winning a $206 billion settlement from tobacco companies in the 1990s, although he’s also taken on big companies like Enron and Volkswagen. Now he’s setting his sights on fossil fuel companies. Vice spoke to Berman about a lawsuit demanding five of the most powerful oil companies in the world pay for causing climate change.
Berman, the managing partner of Hagens Berman, is one of the attorneys representing San Francisco and Oakland in two lawsuits filed against BP, Chevron, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, and ConocoPhillips “alleging that the Big Oil giants are responsible for the cities’ costs of protecting themselves from global warming-induced sea level rise, including expenses to construct seawalls to protect the two cities’ more than five million residents,” according to Hagens Berman.
The case suggests Big Oil borrowed moves from Big Tobacco, which researched cancer even as tobacco companies denied cigarettes were harmful. Berman has evidence that Exxon, for example, knew burning oil leads to global warming in the 1950’s – and oil companies worked to protect Arctic pipelines and offshore oil rigs from the impacts of climate change even as they denied the science.
Vice pointed out no one has yet won a similar lawsuit. A Chevron spokesperson told Vice, “Should this litigation proceed, it will only serve special interests at the expense of broader policy, regulatory, and economic priorities.”
Berman failed to win a lawsuit like this one in 2012, when he attempted to hold fossil fuel companies including Exxon responsible for the sea level rise threatening Kivalina, Alaska. A federal court dismissed the case; United States District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong wrote, “There is no realistic possibility of tracing any particular alleged effect of global warming to any particular emissions by any specific person, entity, group at any particular point in time.”
Leaps in climate science since then could help Berman in this new lawsuit. Researchers have calculated nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gases emitted during the past 150 years can be connected back to 90 companies; BP, Chevron, Exxon, ConocoPhillips, and Shell are in the top ten, according to Vice. Berman told the publication, “We have better science. We think causation will be easier to prove.”