by Emilie Hedlund

A recent article in the New York Times (“Flooded Village Files Suit” 2/27/08 ) focuses on the Alaskan village Kivalina, which is disappearing because of flooding caused by the changing climate.  The residents are accusing five oil companies, 14 electric utilities and the country’s largest coal company of creating a public nuisance.  Similar suits which blame major companies for adverse effects caused by their emission of green house gases (GHG) have been seen for some time now, but this particular suit is unique in that it accuses the defendants of conspiracy.  The companies have been trying to convince residents that changes to their property and the coastline are “natural” and not caused by global climate change.

I found it very interesting that the issues surrounding this Kivalina case are being compared to the issues surrounding the big tobacco suit, where tobacco makers were accused of misleading the public into thinking cigarettes were safe when in fact, the companies knew otherwise.  According to the article, some of the same lawyers involved in the big tobacco case are involved in this climate change suit.  The Kivalina case seems to pose even greater challenges to the plaintiffs than the big tobacco lawsuits because it has to be proven that the defendants’ actions are directly linked to the harm experienced by Kivalina.  Global climate change, being the complicated, international problem that it is, is not as cut and dry as harms caused by cigarette manufacturers.

One of the defendants described this Kivalina lawsuit as “unreasonably suing companies for the weather” and that instead attention should be focused on improving technologies that help provide “energy security and carbon solutions.”  I believe the most interesting idea this article reveals is whether these GHG-emitting companies should be accused of “conspiracy.”  It seems we have forgiven (or even forgotten) that these large companies, along with many others, including our political leaders themselves, denied the notion that global warming was even occurring, even when scientific reports from numerous sources have been warning us of the issue for many years.  It wasn’t long ago at all when global climate change was considered just part of the “the liberal agenda.”

I wonder if future generations will think that we were crazy to not pick up on the warning signs and act sooner on an issue that seems so common sense.  Relating back to the big tobacco issues- I know I think its pretty stupid that it took so many years before we linked lung cancer to cigarettes – I mean it seems to be a fairly obvious phenomenon, and even after that, it took another 50 years before we even made big tobacco accountable and put any sort of regulations on them.

Mostly my reaction to this article is that big business and public health share a very interesting relationship.  I know that our economy and our society functions under a capitalist framework and it would be very hard to break free from it.  But when large companies do not have policies that make them responsible for the welfare of the general public, common sense says they should be punished for their wrong-doing.  It will be interesting to see how we meet the challenges presented by global climate change and whether we look for where to point the finger or simply where to make necessary changes.  In some respects, we should look forward and allow companies to spend their money on making their practices safer for the environment rather than paying for expensive trials and lawsuits. 

I am not sure what is the best way to tackle the complicated issue of global climate change.  I am encouraged by how “going green” is becoming such a widespread trend and how companies are seeing that being environmentally friendly is a great sales tactic. 

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Emilie Hedlund will be graduating next month from The George Washington University with a BS in Public Health.  She is a native of St. Paul, MN but plans to stay in the Washington, DC region tp pursue her interest in public health.  She plans eventually to attend graduate school to learn more about ways to help people live and feel healthier.

Comments

  1. #1 mark
    April 14, 2008

    Thanks for this post and a possible look at the future.

    This is a major problem throughtout coastal western Alaska. A GAO report to Congress completed in December 2003 confirmed that many Alaskan villages were encountering flooding and erosion. The villages of Kivalina and Shishmaref were among the top four communities on the list of the most affected and needing to be relocated to a safe place away from flooding and erosion. Eighteen of 20 villages in the Bering Straits Region are threatened by flooding and erosion.

    The native people of Shismaref established the Shishmaref Erosion & Relocation Coalition in 2001 to try to make their relocation happen. Visit their website at http://www.shishmarefrelocation.com/ for more information and photos of the effect of global warming.

    I was lucky to have visited the village Shismaref in 1990.

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