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Tong's suit against ExxonMobil boogeymen won't address climate change

Attorney General William Tong is drilling a dry well in the lawsuit he announced Connecticut had filed Monday against ExxonMobil in Hartford Superior Court.

You heard right, Connecticut, you are suing the nation’s largest oil company, hoping to prove that the company knew the burning of its oil contributed to climate change — duh — and hid it from the public. And what do you expect to get out of this exercise in attorney general vanity? Not much, we suspect.

It appears Tong wants to follow the lead of his consumer advocate, publicity seeking predecessor, former attorney general and now U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. (Between the bookend attorney generals Blumenthal and Tong served George Jepsen, from 2011-2019, whose understated approach focused more on successful cases than big splashes.)

Tong is not alone. Using the model provided by the successful claim against the tobacco industry, a number of states have filed lawsuits against the oil industry for allegedly knowing the massive burning of oil was harmful and contributed to climate change, while for years arguing publicly the opposite was true.

Indeed, Tong’s office is suing under the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, the same tactic employed by Blumenthal when Connecticut joined other states in going after Big Tobacco.

“There was no more powerful industry than tobacco … the prospects for success were pretty dim. They did it,” Tong said of the lawsuits by 46 states that led in 1998 to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, under which tobacco companies agreed to pay $206 billion over 25 years.

Yet the legal comparison is a stretch and the much-ballyhooed success of the tobacco settlement in reducing cigarette use debatable.

The cigarette companies knew for decades the link between smoking and lung cancer but lied to cover it up and downplayed dangers as they tried to lure more addicts to their products. Responsibility was clear and direct.

For sake of argument, let us assume over the past several decades Exxon and Mobil scientists began to see the possible and then increasingly likely connection between massive burning of fossil fuels and a warming climate. They almost certainly did since this debate, now settled, played out among many researchers over that time.

The tobacco industry’s responsibility was clear, to be honest about the dangers of its products. But what was the oil industry supposed to do in 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Warn people to stop using oil, the primary source of energy driving the world’s economy? Stop drilling for and selling oil, leaving all production in foreign hands?

And while fossil fuels are the primary cause of climate-changing carbon emissions, there are myriad other contributors — population growth, our global economy and the transportation it depends on, meat consumption, consumerism, the large carbon footprint of the American lifestyle, and the list goes on. There are reasons a lot of oil is used.

But our attorney general would ask a court to hold one company responsible for the damages? And how do you calculate those?

New York has already swung and missed. In 2019, four years after its attorney general similarly sued ExxonMobil, using a securities fraud statute, a state judge ruled in favor of the company and chastised the AG for her “hyperbolic” claims.

As for that tobacco settlement that inspires this attempt, the one that was supposed to right the wrong of tobacco industry greed, a 2018 review by the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids found that the states have received $425 billion in tobacco revenue — $148 billion from the tobacco settlement and $277 from tobacco taxes. How much went to tobacco prevention and cessation programs? That would be $11.1 billion, or 2.6%.

In 1998, 24% of adults smoked. Today that is down to 13.7%. The high cost of cigarettes, tied to the cost of the settlement and higher taxes, have played a part, as has education. But the all-out war against smoking that some expected the settlement to pay for never materialized. Meanwhile, Big Tobacco found new profits overseas.

We take climate change seriously and welcome serious approaches to meeting the challenge. It requires legislative action. A tax on carbon, which ExxonMobil supports by the way, is a good place to start. It will also take aggressive conservation initiatives, government supports to transition to renewable energy sources, and global accords such as the Paris Agreement, flawed as it may be.

Earthlings can’t sue their way out of this. And naming boogeymen may be therapeutic, but not terribly productive.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.


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