Skip to main content
19 Jul 2023

"A new lawsuit in Puerto Rico explains a lot about the battle over climate change."

It may even hold some of the world’s worst polluters accountable.

I explain the details in my new story about the case — and the remarkably colorful lawyer at the center of it.

Here are the basics: A group of Puerto Rican municipalities is suing some of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world, including Exxon, Chevron and Shell, arguing that they are partly to blame for thousands of deaths and more than $100 billion worth of damages caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

It’s an audacious claim, and it’s too early to tell how far the case will go.

But the meticulous 247-page lawsuit manages to tell the story of the climate crisis: how the rampant burning of fossil fuels heated the planet, how oil and gas companies caused much of the damage but downplayed the dangers, and how we are all now suffering the consequences in the form of more extreme weather.

Legal experts say that if the companies are found liable, the potential damages could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.

“That’s why the companies are so afraid of these cases,” said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, a nonprofit organization that is helping garner support for the Puerto Rico case. “If they have to pay for the damages they caused, the costs get out of control really fast.”

The suit is the first to claim that the planet-warming emissions produced by the defendants were directly responsible for the damage from a specific weather event.

It is also the first to argue that the fossil fuel companies engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to downplay the effects of global warming — and that by doing so, they violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO, originally passed to crack down on organized crime.

RICO charges open up a serious new legal front for the fossil fuel companies, and they can result in exceptionally high damages. Not coincidentally, RICO has also been used successfully against tobacco companies and opioid manufacturers.

Exxon and ConocoPhillips declined to comment. In a statement, Shell said, “We do not believe the courtroom is the right venue to address climate change, but that smart policy from government and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to reach solutions and drive progress.”


Credit: The New York Times and David Gelles