Today the County of San Mateo filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court against 37 major fossil fuel companies, alleging liability for the sea level rise caused by emissions from the defendants’ products. Marin County and the City of Imperial Beach filed similar suits. According to the public-entity plaintiffs, the defendants knew as early as 1968 their products’ emissions would have catastrophic consequences for the planet.

As stated in the suits, the 37 defendants are responsible for approximately 20 percent of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1965-2015. Those emissions can be directly attributed to a specific amount of sea level rise and to associated costs to communities, which already exceed $40 million for the County of San Mateo. Moreover, the three complaints claim the defendants deliberately prevented public awareness of the climatic consequences of fossil fuel products, undermined reliable science, and simultaneously protected their own assets and infrastructure from sea level rise.

“The environmental harm these companies knowingly caused to our precious shorelines and the entire world and their deliberate efforts to conceal those frightening truths jeopardizes the public’s health and places the financial burden of those consequences on the taxpayers,” said Board President Don Horsley. “With this legal action, the County of San Mateo and our partners in Marin County and Imperial Beach are standing up for our residents and businesses to hold these companies accountable for their emissions and lay blame where it truly belongs. The damage they’ve caused and continue to cause is unacceptable. But the fact that they’d prioritize their bottom line over the health and security of the public — including children — in the face of hard science is unconscionable.”

The County of San Mateo is ground zero for sea level rise. A 2009 Pacific Institute Report determined San Mateo County has more at risk in terms of parcel value and population than any other county in California. Within San Mateo County, more than 100,000 people live in areas threatened by three feet of sea level rise; the assessed value of parcels at risk to near-term flooding may exceed $1 billion; and the value of assets exposed to long-term flooding and erosion may exceed $39.1 billion.

In response to the risks of climate change and sea level rise, the County of San Mateo established its Office of Sustainability in 2014. Earlier this year, the Office released its draft Sea Level Rise Vulnerability Assessment as part of a long-term resilience strategy for the County and its cities to mitigate the effects of climate change. The information compiled in the Vulnerability Assessment reinforces the County’s rationale for filing a lawsuit against the fossil fuel companies, said Supervisor Dave Pine.

“Unlike these fossil fuel companies, we are not hiding the hard truths about climate change, and its potentially catastrophic consequences,” Pine said. “The enormous costs of addressing sea level rise in San Mateo County should be borne by those companies that knowingly caused it, not by our local residents and businesses.

Horsley and Pine equated this lawsuit with tobacco litigation in which powerful companies put profits over people by failing to warn about the harmful nature of their products. “Like those efforts, we don’t anticipate this suit will be quickly or easily resolved. However, it’s not about doing what’s easy; it’s about doing what’s right for our environment and our community,” Pine said.

The County of San Mateo, Marin County, and the City of Imperial Beach are represented by their respective county and city attorneys with assistance by Vic Sher and Matt Edling of the Sher Edling law firm.

The complaint is available at:  https://www.sheredling.com/press-room/.