Most U.S. voters support climate litigation against Big Oil, poll finds
A fire blazes at an oil refinery in Philadelphia. 62 percent of voters surveyed said fossil fuel companies “should be held legally accountable for their contributions to climate change." | Matt Rourke/AP

A new Data for Progress poll shared with The Guardian finds that most voters support litigation against big oil, while nearly half would also back the filing of criminal charges.

On May 3 and 4 of this year, Data for Progress and nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen surveyed 1,206 likely voters in the United States, asking the question of whether respondents believed that “oil and gas companies should be held legally accountable for their contributions to climate change,” including impacts on extreme weather and public health.

“[V]oters strongly want to see companies held accountable for their harmful actions,” said Grace Adcox, Data for Progress senior climate strategist with Fossil Free Media, as The Guardian reported.

Lawsuits against big oil have been ramping up all over the world. Communities across the U.S. have been suing fossil fuel companies for allegedly misleading the public regarding the climate crisis, and just last week France brought the first-ever criminal lawsuit related to climate.

Currently, there are 40 civil lawsuits brought by cities and states in the U.S. against oil majors.

Last year Public Citizen also proposed filing criminal charges against fossil fuel companies.

One argument for this strategy is that oil and gas companies knowing their pollution had potentially deadly consequences while delaying climate action could be possible grounds for reckless or negligent homicide charges.

According to Aaron Regunberg, Public Citizen’s climate program senior policy counsel, while the idea received some skepticism, several district attorneys’ offices gave it “real, serious interest,” reported The Guardian.

The Data for Progress poll showed that 62 percent of voters surveyed said fossil fuel companies “should be held legally accountable for their contributions to climate change.” This included 84 percent of Democrats, 40 percent of Republicans, and 59 percent of Independents.

The survey also asked, “Knowing what you do now, do you support or oppose criminal charges being filed against oil and gas companies to hold them accountable for deaths caused by their contributions to climate change?” to which 49 percent of respondents said they would “somewhat” or “strongly” support such action, in comparison with 39 percent who indicated they would not.

Regunberg said this shows that Americans may not feel the idea is too “out there.”

Regunberg went on to say that 68 percent of Democrats indicating support for criminal charges being brought against big oil was “huge,” since the party’s districts were more likely to bring that type of legal action. Almost a third of Republicans — 32 percent — said they would back the idea.

“A significant number of Republicans would support these prosecutions, even if none of their party’s leaders have the courage to buck their fossil fuel donors,” Regunberg said, as The Guardian reported.

Adcox added that, while gaining political support for criminal lawsuits against fossil fuel companies might not be easy, the survey indicates it could be possible.

“These national findings show these cases may be able to earn popular support, particularly in blue jurisdictions,” Adcox said.

Fossil fuel companies in the U.S. have not yet been forced to face criminal climate charges, but energy companies have. BP and PG&E both pled guilty to charges of homicide and paid fines and penalties in the billions of dollars.

“The fact that this hasn’t been done before may lead many to say, well, it can’t be done, there’s no precedent. But there was no precedent for anything until there was,” said Chesa Boudin, former San Francisco district attorney, as reported by The Guardian.

This article was reposted from Ecowatch.

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Cristen Hemingway Jaynes
Cristen Hemingway Jaynes

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes covers the environment, climate change, oceans, the Arctic, animals, anthropology, astronomy, plastics pollution, and politics. She holds a JD and an Ocean & Coastal Law Certificate from the University of Oregon School of Law.