From the damages to our trademark rocky coastline caused by rising seas and more severe storms, to the impact of hotter seasons on our traditional farming and iconic fishing and lobstering industries, Maine’s bill for climate change is adding up fast. We ordered none of this, and the tab is still open. It is time that Mainers made clear that we refuse to foot the bill alone.

A browntail moth caterpillar, with its distinctive two red dots, climbs the bark of the Candelabra Tree in Deering Oaks, one of the most recognized and largest trees in the state, which is suffering from an infestation. Climate change-linked drought conditions are not favorable for a natural fungus that keeps the infestation in check. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

While Congress and President Biden go back and forth seemingly endlessly on critical infrastructure legislation that could provide some relief, local officials in Maine need not sit on their hands. They can turn to the branch of government traditionally tasked with providing compensation for harms: the courts. The courts of our state have the power to compel the polluters most responsible for Maine’s climate damages to pay their share of the costs.

You may be asking, who exactly is the responsible party? It is actually fairly simple to trace our climate crisis to the actions (and inaction) of a single industry: fossil fuel. Corporations that make their business extracting these fuels from the earth and selling them to us have, it turns out, known for decades that the emissions from their products would cause widespread and irreversible damages. Their executives, however, decided to deceive the public about climate science and fight against cleaner energy policies in order to protect their own profits – forcing the rest of us to pay the price for their pollution.

Wade just a few meters into the swamp of corporate lobbyists and you will see, out in the open, the evidence of their deception.  For example, a senior lobbyist for ExxonMobil recently admitted on tape to “aggressively fight(ing) against some of the science” and “join(ing) some shadow groups to work against some of the early (climate) efforts.” Why did ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel corporations, do this? They were simply “looking out for (their) investments.”

Fortunately, our laws have for centuries not looked kindly on corporations that sell and advertise products that they know will harm the public.  People who are injured by such products have a longstanding right to hold the responsible corporations accountable in a court of law before a jury of peers. Look no further than the long list of successful legal actions against industries that manipulated the public to become addicted to cigarettes, painkillers and other dangerous products, and that were made through lawsuits to pay for the damages they caused.

A related concept has a storied history in environmental law: the “polluter pays” principle. In recent years, a growing number of state and local governments – including the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island – have employed relevant tort and consumer protection law to take ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies to court in order to hold them accountable for the climate damages that their pollution and public deception have caused. These lawsuits are a promising avenue for local government officials who are looking for ways to shift the cost of climate adaptation and resilience from their struggling constituents to the corporate polluters most responsible, and it’s one that Maine’s leadership should take seriously.

The fossil fuel industry and its allies have used their considerable resources to fight these lawsuits with vigor, but lower courts across the country have consistently ruled in favor of the community plaintiffs during early-stage arguments. Just recently, a judge sided with Massachusetts in rejecting ExxonMobil’s motions to dismiss the state’s lawsuit seeking to hold the company accountable for deceiving consumers, bringing that case one step closer to trial.

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court twice denied requests from the industry to order climate lawsuits filed in state court to be sent instead to federal court, where, because of existing precedent, the companies are almost sure to escape accountability. In another important development, President Biden has pledged to order the Justice Department to “strategically support” climate lawsuits against polluters.

The bill for climate change in Maine will continue to get worse. Corporate polluters knowingly brought this mess to our collective table. It’s only fair that they be the ones to clean it up and pay the tab. The time-honored way to make that happen is through the courts.

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