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California has sued several of the world’s largest oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Shell and BP, claiming they have misled the public for decades about how burning fossil fuels is destroying the planet.

The civil lawsuit alleges that oil and gas executives knew that fossil fuel use would have catastrophic consequences but suppressed that information by spreading disinformation on the topic.

Their deception led to a delayed societal response to global warming, resulting in billions of dollars in damage, including droughts, widespread wildfires and historic storms in California, it said.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in San Francisco Superior Court by California’s attorney general, seeks damages from the oil industry to cover the costs of climate change and prevent the industry from causing more pollution. ConocoPhillips, Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute are also named as defendants.

The action follows a sweeping new law passed by California state lawmakers last week that would force major polluters for the first time to calculate and disclose the carbon emissions associated with the delivery and use of their products.

“For more than 50 years, the oil company has been lying to us – covering up the fact that it has long known how dangerous the fossil fuels it produces are to our planet,” said California Governor Gavin Newsom.

“California taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. “California is taking action to hold major polluters accountable.”

California’s lawsuit adds to a list of more than 40 climate lawsuits filed by U.S. states and local governments against the oil and gas industry. These lawsuits seek to recover damages to cover climate-related costs using consumer protection, racketeering, product liability, and other laws.

The number of climate-related lawsuits worldwide doubled in the five years between 2017 and summer 2023, according to research from the United Nations and Columbia University. Most of the cases were filed in the United States.

Last month, a judge in Montana ruled in favor of youth climate activists in a landmark decision, finding that young people have a right to “a clean and healthy environment.”

The legal push against the oil and gas industry has fueled a political debate in the US, with some prominent Republican politicians, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, dismissing these climate lawsuits as “lawfare” and arguing that they harm the industry and Jobs cost.

The API said the California lawsuit was part of a coordinated campaign to wage “baseless politicized lawsuits against an essential American industry and its workers.”

“The track record over the past two decades shows that the industry has achieved its goal of providing affordable and reliable American energy to U.S. consumers while significantly reducing emissions and our environmental footprint,” API said in a statement. “Climate policy must be debated and decided by Congress, not the court system.”

Shell said it agreed that action on climate change was needed now and fully supported the transition to a lower-carbon future. However, it said the courtroom was not the right place to address the matter.

“Smart government policy and action from all sectors is the appropriate way to find solutions and drive progress,” Shell said.

Marco Grasso, a professor of political geography at the University of Milan-Bicocca, said California’s lawsuit was a bold step that would further draw attention to the financial duty the fossil fuel industry owes to climate victims.

“Other companies have sued fossil fuel companies before for the same reasons, but this lawsuit is particularly significant given California’s role, status and vulnerability to the climate crisis,” he said.

A recent peer-reviewed analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 37 percent of the total area burned by wildfires in the western United States and southwestern Canada since 1986 was due to carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel and cement production.

“It’s time for these companies to stop their greenwashing and disinformation campaigns and pay their fair share of the costs that the climate crisis is imposing on Californians,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In 2020, Maui County filed a lawsuit seeking damages from Chevron and Exxon. Earlier this summer, the island experienced unprecedented wildfires, killing nearly 100 people and decimating the town of Lahaina.

California’s 135-page legal complaint alleges that oil industry scientists knew as early as the 1950s that the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels would be catastrophic and that governments had only a short window of opportunity to act.

In 2019, ExxonMobil won a separate New York state lawsuit alleging the company made material misstatements about climate change risks.

Chevron said in a statement that climate change is a global problem that requires a coordinated international response, not isolated litigation.

“California has long been a leading supporter of oil and gas production. Its local courts do not play a constructive or constitutionally permissible role in shaping global energy policy,” the company said.

Additional reporting by Attracta Mooney

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