A leading New York state senator unveiled legislation earlier this month to allow average citizens to file lawsuits against fossil-fuel companies over the adverse effects of climate change, the latest entrant into a growing legislative drive to empower individuals in the wake of a groundbreaking Texas law that targeted abortions.
State Sen. Zellnor Myrie’s (D) bill is modeled on a Texas law that gives citizens the right to sue to stop abortions, including to challenge abortion providers or anyone who helps someone obtain the service.
The New York bill comes after California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation in July that would allow lawsuits against gun makers and dealers over gun violence. That law was recently struck down by a federal judge in a decision Newsom praised, with a heavy dose of sarcasm.
In New York, Myrie acknowledged that he meant his bill to be provocative in order to spark a debate about the oil and gas industry and what he believes is its responsibility for climate change.
“I’ve already been talking to a number of my colleagues who’ve expressed support, and part of the allure of this is the novelty,” Myrie said. “That’s intentional, because I think that even just for discussion purposes of holding the industry accountable, that in many ways, just having a conversation and setting that expectation is a success.”
He said he was hopeful that his bill would gain traction in the legislature given that New York has passed leading climate change legislation, including a law that requires the state to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Myrie gave several examples of how he envisions the measure being used if it becomes law, though he stressed that it would ultimately be up to New Yorkers as to what suits are brought.
One example was in the vein of consumer protection and false advertising. Myrie argued that fossil-fuel companies engage in what he said is known as greenwashing. That’s when a company professes to be transitioning to renewable or cleaner fuel sources but instead pays more for advertising than they do for exploring a cleaner fuel.
Other hypothetical suits could come from farmers suing over adverse effects to their crops; and from homeowners who went through Hurricane Sandy a decade ago and still have not fully recovered or don’t have the resources to recover.
Myrie likened fossil fuel companies to the auto industry before airbags or tobacco and opioid companies, which faced landmark lawsuits that led to consumer protections.
“I think it’s important to contextualize that because a lot of these safety procedures that we take for granted today, for instance, airbags and cars,” Myrie said. “That was not the product of the goodwill of a generous CEO. That was the threat of litigation.”
“This, I think, has often motivated people who did not want to change their behavior,” Myrie said. “And my hope is that it’d be a similar context here.”