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State Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union). Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe.

Cryan: Climate change is an urgent threat to New Jersey

By Senator Joseph P. Cryan, September 23 2020 1:56 pm

OPINION

The harsh reality of climate change in New Jersey is impossible to ignore: Record-breaking heat waves. More frequent and damaging storms. Rising seas along our coast, and flooding up and down the state.

These are urgent threats, and New Jersey’s elected officials must do everything in our power to make our communities more resilient against them. As we struggle to overcome a pandemic and an economic crisis, we must also figure out ways to pay for the expensive work of adapting to climate change, and ensure we do so in a just way that reinvests in communities hardest hit by the climate crisis.

The City of Hoboken took an important step toward these ends by filing a first-in-the-state lawsuit seeking to make multibillion-dollar fossil fuel companies pay their fair share of the fortune the city must spend to combat sea-level rise, flooding, and more.

As Hoboken’s lawsuit lays out in painful detail, the climate crisis did not happen on its own. For decades, oil and gas executives at companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell knew their products would warm the globe and create the catastrophic conditions we now face. Reams of internal industry documents unearthed in recent years have made that indisputable.

As far back as 1965, the president of the American Petroleum Institute, one of the defendants in the Hoboken lawsuit, said “there is still time to save the world’s people from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but the time is running out.”

Rather than act in the world’s interest, these greedy corporations prioritized their own profits and continued to fuel climate change while concealing the truth from the public and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on climate denial propaganda. We are now paying the price for their deception.

I applaud Mayor Ravi Bhalla and the Hoboken City Council for taking action to hold this industry accountable for the costly damages that their decades of pollution imposed on their city. But the unfortunate truth is that a victory for Hoboken will do little to help the rest of New Jersey.

That’s why this year I joined colleagues from both sides of the aisle to sponsor Senate Resolution 57, calling on Governor Murphy and Attorney General Grewal to pursue similar legal action on behalf of the state against the fossil fuel industry for the staggering costs and harms with climate change.

A growing number of cities, counties, and states across the country have filed similar lawsuits, including, most recently, the states of Connecticut and Delaware.

A trio of recent federal appeals courts decisions have made it likely that many of these cases will soon go to trial, against the wishes of the fossil fuel industry.

Like earlier lawsuits against Big Tobacco, such litigation seeks to make Big Oil pay their fair share for the harms they knew their products would cause.

Of course, the fossil fuel industry will vigorously fight these efforts, as they have for decades. A recent U.S. Senate committee report explained how the fossil fuel industry has copied Big Tobacco’s playbook of using dark money front groups “to obscure the role of fossil fuel billionaires and corporations” in their nefarious PR campaigns.

A representative for one of these groups, Phil Goldberg of the Manufacturers’ Accountability Project, recently penned an attack in the Globe against my colleague Senator Loretta Weinberg, the lead sponsor of SR57.

Mr. Goldberg’s group is a project of the National Association of Manufacturers, identified in the Senate report as one of the two most influential dark money opponents of climate action. He falsely claimed that climate lawsuits like Hoboken’s have “always failed,” which is simply not true, as Monmouth University law professor Randall Abate has explained.

Mr. Goldberg’s law firm has a long history of working for Big Tobacco to spread misinformation about the harms of smoking. A 2006 federal court ruling against Phillip Morris found the firm helped the tobacco industry with “setting strategy, preparing witnesses on smoking and health issues, briefings, reviewing press releases, advertisements, and other public statements.”

Dishonest voices should not dictate government actions in New Jersey. The oil and gas industry needs to be serious about engaging in genuine climate solutions.

The Murphy administration has taken many positive steps to make New Jersey a leader in climate action. But we still must address the crucial question of who will pay the billions of dollars needed to combat climate change. Hoboken has set an example: it’s time to make polluters pay.

Joseph P. Cryan, Democrat of Union, represents the 20th legislative district in the New Jersey State Senate.

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