As communities struggle with the costs of rising seas, floods, heat waves, turbocharged storms and other threats made worse by climate change, New Jersey should take action to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in the climate crisis, a group of elected officials and advocates told more than 100 people in Union County on Sunday.

The educational event, “New Jersey’s Climate Emergency: Moving to a Green Economy & Holding Climate Polluters Accountable,” was hosted by Mayor Colleen Mahr in Fanwood and attended by concerned residents, community leaders, and elected officials from the local, county and state level.

As a member of Climate Mayors, a national bipartisan network of hundreds of mayors, Mahr urged the officials present to make tackling climate change a top priority. Union County suffered widespread damages from Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, and increased flooding and storm water is posing new threats to sewage systems and Newark International Airport.

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Mahr and State Senator Joseph Cryan (District 20) said they support actions that would hold major oil and gas companies financially accountable for the costs of those damages, which are currently forced on taxpayers and struggling municipal budgets.

Cryan said he and other legislators are working to pass a state resolution (AR75) asking Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to file a lawsuit against major fossil fuel companies that would seek to make them pay their fair share of mitigation and resilience plans.

Mahr said one action that local mayors and officials can take to advance those efforts is to pass local resolutions supporting the rights of local governments to access the courts to hold fossil fuel companies, and other industries, accountable for the harms their products cause.  

“Many industries, including Big Oil, have tried to block communities’ ability to seek justice in court and have aimed to pass a liability waiver through Congress, which would grant them blanket immunity for past, present, and future damages,” Mahr said.  “We need to protect our local communities’ right to take polluters to court.”

In recent years, more than a dozen local governments, including New York City, Baltimore, and the state of Rhode Island, have filed lawsuits seeking to recover costs from fossil fuel companies associated with climate change damages.

Lauren O’Brien, New Jersey Campaign Director for Pay Up Climate Polluters, said those lawsuits point to a decades-long campaign by Exxon and other oil and gas companies to deceive the public about climate science and the impact the burning of fossil fuels would have on the climate. She highlighted internal industry letters, memos, and patents as evidence that the industry knew its products would warm the planet and fuel disasters, such as sea-level rise and extreme weather. 

“There are patents in here from 1974 and 1984 showing that Shell adjusted their own technology to drill in the Artic, and to raise their oil rigs by a couple of meters due to rising seas, but they lied to consumers about the reality of climate change," O'Brien said. 

David Pringle, a Cranford resident and Empower New Jersey steering committee member, said the scientific consensus is overwhelming that Union County like the rest of the world is in a climate emergency and must reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions.

“Governor Murphy has called for a 100% clean energy economy wide by 2050, yet there’s over a dozen new major frack gas projects that would spike emissions 31 percent,” he said. “That’s why we’re calling for a moratorium until rules are in place to protect public health and private property, and grow a truly green economy with good paying jobs. We’ve made progress but DEP must do much more much faster than currently planned.”

After the event, Cryan agreed that everyone has a role to play, but that no one bears more responsibility than the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s imperative that we all hold ourselves accountable for the carbon foot print we leave,” he said, “but no one more than the companies that knowingly caused irreparable harm and chose healthy profit over healthy environment.”