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We Are Local Leaders Uniting to Hold Climate Polluters Accountable

We wouldn't be forced to tackle these unprecedented challenges were it not for the oil and gas industry that has spent decades polluting our climate and lying about it in order to protect their profits. 

A protester holds a sign against Big Oil during a rally against climate change in San Diego, California on February 21, 2017. (Photo: SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

A protester holds a sign against Big Oil during a rally against climate change in San Diego, California on February 21, 2017. (Photo: SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

The catastrophic damage caused by climate change is not simply a global or national problem. It’s also a local one. 

Whether it’s wildfires in the West, sea-level rise and supercharged storms along our coasts, or worsening floods, droughts, heatwaves, air pollution, and other extreme weather, the accelerating impacts of the climate crisis threaten homes, livelihoods, and critical infrastructure in communities all across the United States. 

Local officials like us at the city, county, and state level are doing our part to transition away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change and toward clean energy alternatives. But our communities also face unique, localized challenges: How should we adapt to a warming globe to best protect our residents? How can we make our local infrastructure more resilient? And perhaps most importantly, how are we going to pay for it all?  

The polluters that knowingly lied to our constituents and left them to pay the price now insist they deserve a seat at the table to negotiate solutions. We’re here to tell them that their time is over—and that leaders like us will do everything in our power to hold them accountable.

While each community’s situation is different, one thing unites us all: we wouldn’t be forced to tackle these unprecedented challenges were it not for the oil and gas industry that has spent decades polluting our climate and lying about it in order to protect their profits. There is robust evidence—cited in more than 20 lawsuits nationwide—that major corporate polluters like Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP knew as early as the 1970s that their products would create the climate disasters now threatening our communities. 

Rather than do the right thing, Big Oil copied Big Tobacco and engaged in what several state attorneys general have called a decades-long “campaign of deception” to spread climate denial and disinformation in order to block action that could have spared our communities from the worst of the damages they knew their products would cause. At the same time, they quietly spent billions to protect their own assets from rising seas and other climate change impacts. 

As elected officials, we know that accountability matters, and that the corporations fueling our climate crisis should be held accountable. That is why we—a county commissioner from New Mexico and a state legislator from Michigan—are joining dozens of our colleagues from across the country to create a new network of state and local officials committed to holding polluters accountable and ensuring that they pay for the damage they caused so that our taxpayers aren’t stuck with the entire bill.

Leaders for Climate Accountability is launching with nearly 70 state legislators, county leaders, mayors, and other municipal officials, and we look forward to more joining our ranks. We plan to share, explore, and advance policy ideas to shine a light on the fossil fuel industry’s ongoing efforts to deceive the public, and we will work together to hold them accountable. 

Part of our mission will involve protecting the right of every community to seek justice in court. In recent years, officials in 25 states and localities—from California and South Carolina to Minnesota and Delaware—have filed lawsuits to hold Exxon and other major oil and gas companies accountable for lying to the public about their role in the climate crisis. The industry is rightfully scared of these lawsuits and working hard to escape justice. Dark money fossil fuel interests, for example, have pushed legislation to restrict the ability of local officials to bring similar lawsuits, and even tried to sneak a provision into last year’s COVID-19 relief package that would have granted oil and gas companies legal immunity. As Leaders for Climate Accountability, we will fight just as hard to defend these lawsuits and the unfettered ability of all communities to hold bad actors accountable.

We know that protecting our homes, businesses, schools, and families from climate change is expensive and complicated. These costs are even higher in communities of color and low-income communities, where climate impacts are exacerbated by systemic inequality and lack of resources. But we also know that local governments have historically been learning labs for policy solutions. That’s why we’re starting this network at the state and local level, and why we believe it will be crucial to center accountability in climate conversations. 

The polluters that knowingly lied to our constituents and left them to pay the price now insist they deserve a seat at the table to negotiate solutions. We’re here to tell them that their time is over—and that leaders like us will do everything in our power to hold them accountable. We welcome any public officials who share our mission to join our growing network at LeadersForClimateAccountability.org. 

Yousef Rabhi

Representative Yousef Rabhi represents Michigan’s House District 53.

Anna Hansen

Commissioner Anna Hansen represents District 2 in Sante Fe County, New Mexico.  

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