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King County sues big oil to fund climate change work

As Seattle’s head tax proposal claimed headline after headline last week, King County was quietly starting a battle with the world’s largest energy companies over their contributions to climate change.

RELATED: How to make a carbon tax work in Washington

King County filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 against the five largest oil companies arguing they are responsible for knowingly contributing to “climate disruptions and putting the residents of King County at greater risk of floods, landslides, ocean acidification, sea level rise, and other impacts.”

King County’s lawsuit names: BP; Chevron; Exxon Mobil; Royal Dutch; and ConocoPhillips. The action comes in tandem with governments in California, New York, and Colorado that have filed similar lawsuits.

“The science is indisputable: climate change is impacting our region today, and it will only cause greater havoc and hardships in the future,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “The companies that profited the most from fossil fuels should help bear the costs of managing these disasters. Big oil spent many decades disregarding and dismissing what is our most pressing generational challenge. We must hold these companies accountable as we marshal our resources to protect and preserve what makes this region great.”

The county aims to get the five oil companies to fund the costs of upgrading the region’s infrastructure. It is also seeking to fund salmon recovery, and other costs related to the changing climate. An abatement fund could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to officials. The county notes that the law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro is helping with the lawsuit. This is the same company that successfully sued the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

Climate Change and the Northwest

The lawsuit is likely to have some debate. For example, King County leadership argues that areas located along the mean high tide line are now experiencing regular flooding, with more flooding expected in coming years. But local climatologist and University of Washington professor Cliff Mass — who promotes climate change will dramatically affect the Northwest by 2100 — may not agree with this assertion.

Mass has said that current sea level rise is not from climate change — so far. It will be, however. But he argues that the current sea level rise has been part of an ongoing trend that began long before humans influenced the climate with increasing carbon emissions. The climatologist has also pointed out the many ways human activity has altered the Northwest climate aside from oil-based causes. For example, the eastern part of the state has experienced cooler summers by about 2-5 degrees. This is due to irrigation farming. Mismanagement of forests has also affected forest fires and dust storms.

Mass’ comments on the climate have drawn the ire of both climate change alarmists and deniers. But he does assert that much of the current climate changes are caused by human activity and that this will dramatically change the Northwest environment by 2100. For example, residents can expect less snow at lower elevations with a 5-10 percent increase in regional precipitation. Yep, that’s right, more rain. He also predicts that warming will cease being slow and “rev up” around 2050. By 2090, the number of days spent above 90 degrees each year will go up.

To address this, Mass has promoted that the Northwest become a “resilient society” to climate change. Perhaps with some money from its lawsuit, King County can fund becoming more resilient.

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