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Rhode Island Sues Oil Companies Over Their Contributions to Climate Change

Rhode Island on Monday became the first state to file a climate lawsuit to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for contributing to climate change.

The lawsuit names 21 defendants, including ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell. According to a press release issued by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, the lawsuit argues that the companies "[c]reated, contributed to, and assisted in creating conditions" that "constitute a public nuisance" in the state; "failed to adequately warn customers, consumers, regulators, and the general public to the known and foreseeable risks"; and caused sea-level rise.

"Rhode Island is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate changes that is now on our doorstep with sea level rise and an increase in severe weather patterns," Kilmartin said in a statement.

The lawsuit contends that, not only have the companies known for nearly 50 years that greenhouse gas pollution from their fossil fuel products affects the climate, but they have also known that the impacts "could be catastrophic and that only a narrow window existed to take action before the consequences would be irreversible." The companies, the lawsuit argues, "engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats," while discrediting scientific evidence and otherwise fomenting doubt about the impacts of their pollution.

Kilmartin added that the companies' actions have had "a significant and detrimental impact on our infrastructure, economy, public health, and our eco-systems."

The filing of the lawsuit in Rhode Island comes one week after a federal judge threw out a similar suit filed by the cities of Oakland and San Francisco against fossil fuel companies. The cities argued that the companies should be held financially responsible for climate change impacts caused by fossil fuels, but the judge dismissed the suit on the grounds that the legislative and executive branches, not the courts, should resolve such issues.