Democratic White House hopefuls are getting increasingly aggressive on climate change — and calling for oil, gas and coal producers to pay for their role in climbing temperatures, rising seas and catastrophic weather.
The sharpened tone includes former Vice President Joe Biden’s promise to "take action against fossil fuel companies," as well as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ charge that the businesses committed "criminal activity" by knowingly producing the greenhouse gases that worsen climate change. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is proposing legislation that could pave the way for lawsuits against the companies, while Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has accused fossil fuel producers of "killing people" and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wants to create a fossil fuel "excise tax."
The rhetoric echoes the fervor of the climate change activists who have pushed Democrats to embrace an ambitious “Green New Deal” that would wean the U.S. off fossil fuels in a decade or more, and comes amid lawsuits from states, cities and citizens accusing the companies of hiding the evidence that their products are harming the planet.
But Republicans say they welcome the trend, too, accusing Democrats of pushing a radical attack on an industry that has provided one of the brightest spots in the economy and has reduced U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
"The deeper and the longer the Democrats talk about this, the happier the Trump campaign is," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist who speaks regularly with the White House and President Donald Trump's reelection effort. "They see fodder not so much in the issue but in the solutions being proposed by the Democrats."
For climate activists angry over Trump's rollback of policies designed to fight greenhouse gas emissions, candidates' calls for aggressive action are long overdue.
"One could argue that some of what they're prescribing is not politically palatable, but at least they have the integrity to call the global climate crisis exactly what it is," said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who worked on Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.
While all the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for action on climate change, Sanders has been perhaps the most vocal among the front-runners. Last month, he escalated his demands to investigate the companies, saying during the second Democratic debate that the industry had engaged in "criminal activity" by promoting fossil fuels despite their knowledge they were driving climate change.
Sanders' campaign compared the oil and gas industry's strategy to the tactics used by the tobacco industry to hide the health risks associated with smoking.
"When Bernie is president, he will appoint an attorney general who will finally hold fossil fuel executives accountable for their criminal behavior," said Sarah Ford, a spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, in an email.
Warren’s proposal, in a bill she recently reintroduced, would require more detailed financial disclosures on risks that publicly traded companies face from climate change that could pave the way for legal action. It would direct the Securities and Exchange Commission to require companies to share how exposed they are to physical risks from climate change, their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and how many fossil fuel assets they control.
Under Warren's plan, fossil fuel companies would also have to report their estimated direct and indirect emissions from extraction, processing and eventually combustion of their product. Several cities and states suing fossil fuel companies have used such bedrock data to support claims of harm.
Biden's climate plan suggests he would take a harder line as well, saying: "The Biden Administration will take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and knowingly harm our environment and poison our communities’ air, land, and water, or conceal information regarding potential environmental and health risks."
Polls indicate that voters increasingly see climate change as one of the biggest issues facing the country, in contrast to past election cycles. A survey of 5,000 people by the Yale Project on Climate Communication found 57 percent of Americans believe fossil fuel companies are responsible and should pay for the destruction caused by climate change, and 50 percent support suing those companies. The Yale group found that protecting the environment and climate change were the second- and third-most important issues to liberal Democratic voters, a result that director Anthony Leiserowitz described as "stunning."
But the American Petroleum Institute warned that many of the 2020 candidates' plans would hurt industry’s hundreds of thousands of employees across the country while raising energy costs for households. The group also points to a recent trend of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution declining as natural gas displaces coal in electricity generation.
"These campaign plans all seem to pit their goals against the working families who rely on affordable American energy in every facet of their daily lives," spokesperson Ben Marter said in a statement.
Environmental groups say there's room to sharpen government oversight of the oil and gas industry. The climate activist organization 350 Action has launched a "Day One Pledge" asking presidential candidates to commit to asking Congress to investigate fossil fuel companies' "role in misleading the public and stalling climate action, and to prepare to hold the industry accountable."
"The conversation has particularly evolved to the point where we're not just talking about what's happening, we are talking about getting to the root of the problem and who's responsible," 350 Action spokesperson Lindsay Meiman said.
Communities have in the past sued the oil and gas industry over climate change. They include Kivalina, a remote indigenous Alaskan village that unsuccessfully pressed fossil fuel companies a decade ago to cover costs for relocating the community when flooding made it uninhabitable.
For now, the paucity of national laws on climate change make it hard to bring federal suits, said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. No criminal cases for climate change are underway anywhere in the world, and Gerrard does not believe there is precedent for any such lawsuits, either.
"The sale of coal, oil and gas is perfectly legal," he said in an email. "Criminal charges might be brought for other related crimes, such as lying while under oath to a court or to Congress, but I don't think that has happened in the climate context."
But the lawsuits piling up across the country take various approaches. Plaintiffs argued in separate cases that climate change harms future generations' quality of life, that companies have misled shareholders about the financial risks of fossil fuels, and that companies should be liable for costs from catastrophic weather worsened by climate change.
Activists are seeking a culprit for more destructive storms, wildfires, floods and droughts that have grown with intensity and frequency as greenhouse gases warm the planet, causing deaths, destroying billions of dollars in property and economic productivity, and forced spending to protect against future catastrophes.
"There's clear wrongdoing," said Julian NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategy with progressive think tank Data for Progress. "It would be very exciting for the next Democratic nominee and president to seriously investigate what has happened and what justice would look like given the facts."
Advancements in climate science make assigning blame for catastrophic events more possible, Yale's Leiserowitz said. So-called attribution science can help answer how climate change made incidents more severe. And apportioning how much of those emissions come from specific companies is possible because greenhouse gases have the same effect on global climate no matter where they're emitted, he said.
"Just the fact that we're talking about it, let alone that candidates are now contesting with each other over who's got the better plan to deal with it, is already in and of itself a major difference," Leiserowitz said. "And now you throw in any kind of discussion by the candidates of these legal challenges — it's like, 'What? Wow.' I think we're entering very different waters."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the organization that launched the "Day One Pledge." It is 350 Action.