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Alaska's Soon-To-Be Climate Refugees Sue Energy Companies for Relocation

By Max Ajl

Jun 15, 2009

Kivalina, a small Inupiat village in northwestern Alaska, is being forced to relocate.

Its 400 residents will shortly become some of the world’s first climate refugees. And they’re taking a rather novel route for paying for the move: They're suing a group of energy companies for creating a public nuisance and for conspiracy—that is, for funding research to “prove” there is no link between climate change and human activity.

The , Native Village of Kivalina v. ExxonMobil Corp., et al., went to court a couple weeks ago in California and could be enormously important.

It is one of the first lawsuits tied to anthropogenic global warming that seeks to use conspiracy law to press for civil damages from trans-national corporations—in this case, up to $400 million, the upper-bound estimate for relocation costs.

Kivalina is endangered because thinning sea ice and surging seas threaten its territorial integrity. Waves that were once blocked by sea ice lap and slam into the community's buildings regularly. The Army Corps of Engineers asserted in 2006 that the situation was “dire,” while the U.S. General Accounting Office gives numbers for at up to $400 million.

If the conspiracy argument sounds familiar, a look at the Kivalinians’ lead attorney list offers a hint and a touch of irony: Lead co-counsel , a partner at Susman Godfrey LLP, represented tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris against the array of lawsuits filed against it by state attorneys general in the 1990s. He probably knows a good bit about the relevant portions of civil conspiracy statutes that residents of Kivalina are charging the defendants with violating.

The complaint reads,

Kivalina brings this action against defendants under federal common law and, in the alternative, state law, to seek damages for defendants’ contributions to global warming, a nuisance that is causing severe harm to Kivalina. Kivalina further asserts claims for civil conspiracy and concert of action for certain defendants’ participation in conspiratorial and other actions intended to further the defendants’ abilities to contribute to global warming. ...

Additionally, some of the defendants, as described below, conspired to create a false scientific debate about global warming in order to deceive the public. Further, each defendant has failed promptly and adequately to mitigate the impact of these emissions, placing immediate profit above the need to protect against the harms from global warming.

The defendants include BP America, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, American Electric Power, Duke Energy and Southern Company, all of which were accused of conspiracy, plus several other companies accused of creating a public nuisance and also implicated in massive carbon emissions.

ExxonMobil spokesman Gantt Walton waved off the conspiracy claim, saying: “The recycling of this type of discredited conspiracy theory only diverts attention from the real challenge at hand — how to provide the energy to improve living standards while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s unclear if Walton was claiming that it was a “conspiracy theory” that energy corporations had funded fatuous climate research, since that's a touch more like a .

That still doesn't mean a quick or easy battle for the Kivalinians, though.

Legal analyst Dustin Till remarks that . Judges have preferred to leave such supposedly contentious issues to legislators, being “political” and not legal issues.

Attachment Size
Kivalina Complaint-1.pdf 694.79 KB

All of these companies need to be held accountable.

I hope all of the people harmed by these companies finally get justice. Awarding $400 million to the residents of Kivalina is a good start in the right direction. The people harmed by the Exxon-Valdeez disaster have still not been properly compensated for their losses many years after the incident.

Charlie Lammers


As well, the inhabitants of Kivalina and others living in the northern part of the american continent should sue the chemical pestcide manufacturers for endangerment of its peoples. They are slowly poisoning everyone on the planet.

Perhaps necessary change is in the offing.....

How is the family of humanity to sensibly organize to respond ably to the human folly, avarice and stupidity that is now being consciously perpetrated by those few million greedy people who possess a lion’s share of the world’s wealth and the power it purchases? After all, a tiny minority is primarily responsible for the Earth being ravaged and threatened as a fit place for habitation by our children.

When are the morally bankrupt, super-rich Masters of the Universe among us to be held to account for having disgracefully institutionalized the ‘goodness’ of their pathological arrogance, conspicuous consumption and excessive hoarding for the benefit of none others than themselves and minions? For many too many economic powerbrokers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians
short-term financial gains, power accrual, economic expediency and political convenience have directed their thought and behavior.

Perhaps it is time for many ordinary people not only to deploy these words from Mohandas Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, but also to live out this great man’s example of principled, peaceful, refusal to submit to arrogant, dishonest, avaricious and dishonorable authority that is relentlessly degrading Earth’s frangible environment and recklessly dissipating Earth’s limited resources in our time.

Perhaps honesty, more transparency, constructive personal action, accountability and necessary social change are in the offing.

Scientists have a duty to warn and to inform; leaders of the family of humanity have a responsibility to act with moral courage and a willingness to do the right thing. At least some scientists appear to be doing their duty. Except for a precious few, great human beings like President Barack Obama, the human community appears to be virtually bereft of adequate leaders.

Courts should not be afraid to rule on this case.

Thanks for your report. This is not at all well reported in the news media, since it is possible major news and ad agencies could get dragged into this case too as un-named co-conspirators.

This is a simple and straightforward nuisance case. You knowingly harmed me, you pay the consequences. Plus if you conspire to continue the harm, then you have added culpability.

Exxon et, al. can afford this chump change of $400 million in damages, but of course they fear a flood of similar cases they fear. Because everyone will be harmed by global warming.

Courts should rule on this one, legislators have no stomach to act - and no record of acting fairly on these kinds of issues. But the real test will be whether we will have a government of laws. Currently it often feels like we are ruled by poorly controlled predatory business interests.

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