Senator proposes ‘climate negligence’ bill based on Texas abortion law

December 12, 2022

Originally published in Politico on December 12, 2022.

While state Sen. Zellnor Myrie opposes Texas’ law that allowed individuals to sue people who “aid and abet” an abortion after six weeks of a pregnancy, he said the courts have upheld the private action option.

ALBANY, N.Y. — A Democratic state senator is taking a page from Texas’ abortion playbook and proposing the creation of a private cause of action for individuals to sue fossil fuel companies for climate damages.

The bill introduced by Sen. Zellnor Myrie seeks to establish a new legal avenue of attack in New York courts on companies responsible for greenhouse gas emissions that have contributed to climate change. Many lawsuits by states and cities against fossil fuel companies have been bogged down in jurisdictional challenges with defendants arguing they should be transferred to federal courts.

While he opposes Texas’ law that allowed individuals to sue people who “aid and abet” an abortion after six weeks of a pregnancy, Myrie said the courts have upheld the private action option. And he said the New York law could be a model for other states to use the legal precedent to ensure fossil fuel companies are held accountable.

“New Yorkers have died from climate incidents that could have been prevented,” the Brooklyn senator said. “As much as we have attempted to hold bad actors responsible for harming New Yorkers — one being the gun industry — I think it’s time to approach the fossil industry with the same level of accountability.”

The measure, which has yet to get an Assembly sponsor, would cover companies engaged in extraction, import, distribution, producing, storing or marketing fossil fuels with revenues over $1 billion annually. It would require covered companies to not “knowingly or recklessly” contribute to a condition that endangers New Yorkers’ safety and health and take steps to limit pollution in New York that contributes to climate change.

Violations are “climate negligence,” as is any harm caused by a fossil fuel company — regardless of when the pollution contributing to the nuisance occurred. Government enforcement is prohibited, but individuals and companies can bring a lawsuit over damages caused by a fossil fuel company.

Myrie likened the retroactive nature of the measure to New York’s Adult Survivors Act that enabled lawsuits over decades-old sexual abuse cases.

“The harm is so great that the accountability should not be limited,” Myrie said. The measure also takes aim at false advertising and deceptive acts or practices by fossil fuel companies. The bill will likely face strong opposition from the industry during the six-month legislative session that starts in January, but some environmental groups praised Myrie's efforts.

"Fossil fuel companies have relentlessly deceived the public about their role in the climate crisis, and this first-of-its-kind legislation would give New Yorkers an important new tool to hold them accountable,” said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, the Washington-based advocacy.