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Big Oil Needs to Pay for the Damage It Caused

Big Oil Needs to Pay for the Damage It Caused


protestors hold up a sign that says exxon knew

Environmental activists rally for accountability for fossil fuel companies outside of New York Supreme Court on October 22, 2019, in New York City. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, is taking on ExxonMobil in a landmark case that accuses the oil corporation of misleading investors about the company’s financial risks from climate change.DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES

This month in a Manhattan courthouse, New York State’s attorney general Letitia James argued that ExxonMobil should be held accountable for layers of lies about climate change. It’s a landmark moment—one of the  first times that Big Oil is having to answer for its actions—and James deserves great credit for bringing it to trial. But it comes with a deep irony: Under the relevant New York statutes, the only people that New York can legally identify as victims are investors in the company’s stock.

It is true that Exxon should not have misled its investors—lying is wrong, and that former CEO Rex Tillerson had to invent a fake email persona as part of the scheme (we see you, “Wayne Tracker”) helps drive home the messiness. But let’s be clear: On the spectrum of human beings who are and will be hit by the climate crisis, Exxon investors are not near the top of the list.

In fact, if the “justice system” delivered justice, the payouts for Exxon’s perfidy would go to entirely different people, because the iron law of climate is, the less you did to cause it, the more you’ll suffer.

The high-end estimate for economic damage from the global warming we’re on track to cause is $551 trillion, which is more money than exists on planet Earth.

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