NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — It was a hot, sunny day on the Narragansett Seawall, but Rhode Island Attorney General Peter J. Kilmartin painted a grim picture Monday of the risk climate change poses for the Ocean State.
“If we experience a 7-foot sea rise level by the end of this century, as many scientists predict, and a hurricane hits, it is projected that the entire Pier section of Narragansett and the neighborhood behind it will be inundated, destroyed, virtually wiped out,” he said. “We have over 400 miles of coastline, all of which is subject to being devastated.”
Kilmartin placed the blame for sea level rise with large oil companies, and announced his office has filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court against 21 national and international oil companies, including Chevron, Exxon Mobil, BP and Shell. The suit alleges those companies knowingly contributing to climate change despite its potentially catastrophic consequences for Rhode Island.
The complaint alleges the companies have created, contributed to and assisted in creating conditions in Rhode Island that constitute a public nuisance; failed to adequately alert customers, consumers and regulators to the known and foreseeable risks posed by their products; refuted generally accepted science; failed in their duty to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm; caused sea level rise; and interfered with use and enjoyment of public trust resources.
The lawsuit is the first of its kind, Kilmartin told those gathered for Monday’s announcement.
“For the longest time, there has been this perception that they, Big Oil, were too big to take on,” he said. “But here we are, the smallest state, the Ocean State, taking on the biggest most powerful corporate polluters in the world, because it’s the right thing to do. They need to be held accountable.”
Kilmartin said Rhode Island is especially vulnerable to the economic effects of climate change, including sea level rise and extreme weather like the flooding of 2010 and Superstorm Sandy. As an example, he pointed to nearby business The Coast Guard House, which closed for several months after Superstorm Sandy.
“This is just one example of the real damage caused by climate change and the rising sea levels,” he said, also highlighting damage to the salt marsh and coastline and the costs associated with mitigating that damage.
Gov. Gina Raimondo praised Kilmartin’s action.
“We have 400 miles of coastline. Twenty-one out of 39 Rhode Island communities are coastal. We need to protect that,” she said. “Given that we have a president in the White House who denies climate change and pulled us out of the Paris climate accord, it puts a greater burden on us, the states, to take action ... If the federal government isn’t going to do their job, we will do it for them.”
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) highlighted reports from the Union of Concerned Scientists, federal housing agency Freddie Mac and trade publication Risk and Insurance regarding the consequences of climate change and rising sea levels.
“There’s some big things happening out there, and it’s really vital for states to stand up and go to a forum where they have an even shot at the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “We need to go to court to straighten this out. The attorney general has done the right thing, and I applaud him.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) said Kilmartin’s action is in keeping with the independent spirit and tradition of Rhode Island.
“I think that we all need to do everything we can, all hands on deck, to battle the effects of climate change [and] reverse it if we can, but certainly hold those accountable who have caused it,” he said. “Climate change clearly poses a direct threat to our entire way of life, and everything we know about the Ocean State, and those companies profit from the sale of fossil fuels. They need to acknowledge how their products are causing havoc across the globe and particularly in coastal states like Rhode Island.”
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) said the litigation is important in the context of an administration trying to undermine environmental protections.
“It’s in that context that the work being done at the state level is particularly important, because this White House and this president have really undermined science, have rejected the important work that is being done, and the members of Congress who have refused to get this done have been silenced because of the power and influence of Big Oil in our election system,” he said.
A number of state and local leaders attended the press conference, including state Reps. Teresa Tanzi and Carol Hagen McEntee, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit, Narragansett Town Manager James Manni, Town Council President Susan Cicilline Buonanno and Councilor Jill Lawler.