Fossil Fuel Industry Must Pay for the Climate Crisis They’ve Profited From

Interview with Jamie Henn, climate activist, strategist and director of Fossil Free Media, conducted by Scott Harris

July 2023 was the hottest month ever recorded globally by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, and possibly the warmest in 120,000 years according to climate scientists. Ocean temperatures too have reached an all-time high. Waters off the Florida coast were recorded at 101 degrees Fahrenheit, bleaching coral reefs and endangering marine life on which humanity depends. 

Temperatures were 1.5 degrees warmer than pre-industrial times for a record 16 days in July, while the Paris Climate Accord aims to keep the 20- or 30-year global temperature average to 1.5 degrees. Speaking to reporters from the United Nations headquarters in New York last week, Secretary-General António Guterres said that the era of global warming has ended and “the era of global boiling has arrived.” Guterres admonished world leaders when he warned: “No more hesitancy, no more excuses, no more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.”

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jamie Henn, a climate activist, director of Fossil Free Media and cofounder of Here he talks about his recent article titled, “This Killer Heat Is Brought to You by Big Oil: It’s Time for Fossil Fuel Giants to Pay Up,” where he discusses the culpability of major oil companies in misleading the public regarding what their scientists knew about the link between fossil fuels and global warming as far back as the 1970s.

JAMIE HENN: I’ve been working on climate for nearly 15 years now and I think that the last month has been one of the most terrifying that I’ve ever experienced when it comes to witnessing the climate impacts that are rapidly spiraling out of control. And I say that as an activist, but I think you hear the same thing from many scientists who are seeing some of their predictions come true faster and harder hitting than they ever feared.

Part of that, of course, is that we are in an El Niño cycle. And so some of these impacts have been intensified because of that variation. But still even accounting for that, people are really worried about the way that climate change is rapidly destabilizing our earth’s natural systems and that those impacts are compounding each other. I think if there’s any silver lining — and it’s hard to find one when so many people are suffering and so many impacts are happening quickly — it’s that the world is really waking up to the fact that climate is not a distant threat for the future, but really a clear and present danger.

So I think that the level of news coverage we’ve seen over the last month or two, the level of public awareness on this issue and a level of public support for really trying to drive forward stronger action when it comes to addressing climate change is higher than we’ve seen in the past. The question is, does that translate to the type of political pressure that’s going to be necessary to move a political system that has been far too slow in addressing this crisis and to take on an industry, in the fossil fuel industry that is still doing everything it can to try and slow down progress and cling to the incredible process that they’ve made throughout their history and especially over the last year or two.

SCOTT HARRIS: Jamie, you say the fossil fuel companies should be forced to pay for the widespread damage they’ve caused on planet Earth. Is there a model in the lawsuits that were filed against the Big Tobacco companies that eventually resulted in multiple lawsuits? Hundreds of millions of dollars being paid to the victims and preventative health measures to protect future generations from the scourge of tobacco — emphysema, cancer and the like?

Is there anything we can learn from that or is this a completely different situation where it’s not just a public health emergency, it’s a planetary health emergency?

JAMIE HENN: I think that’s exactly right. The first thing I’d say is, “Yes, there is a lot to learn from this story of Big Tobacco.” First, the critical role that litigation played in winning that fight. There was always a push, just like on climate, to take local action on tobacco, to pass legislation at the city, state and federal level.

But court cases played a really important role and the legal process played an important role. This is one of the tools we have to rein in corporate power in this country and hold people to account. The very good news and I think the really exciting news that more people need to know about is that there is a wave of game-changing lawsuits that are taking place across the country that are beginning to bubble up here in the U.S. and actually around the world that are taking on the fossil fuel industry from different angles.

And as people do some Googling after listening to this, you’ll find great articles in The Guardian, especially who’s been doing a great job tracking this, as well as other news outlets. But right now, as we speak, over two dozen different cities and states across the United States are bringing lawsuits forward against Big Oil in different ways, some of them going after the industry for their greenwashing and lying to consumers about their products.

Others really suing for climate damages and saying, “Look, our cities having to pay the cost of climate impacts and we think the industry should pay their fair share.” Others are really led by Puerto Rico, but expanding are filing racketeering charges that took down the mob, saying, “Look, these companies conspired together to try and block action to regulate their industry. That’s illegal. That’s a conspiracy.”

So people are pursuing different angles. There are also, of course, young people filing cases, be it at the federal level; young people saying, “Look, we have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that’s being impinged upon by climate change.”

Or in some key states like Montana, where the state constitution guarantees young people a healthy environment. And obviously that right is being violated by the companies that are wrecking the climate.

So there’s a real proliferation of these cases that I think could begin to make an impact. We’re going to see more of these over the weeks, months, years to come. And I think we’re, as activists, trying to think about ways that the public can get engaged, so all of us can have a stake in these different fights, because, look, all of us have standing in this case. All of us are paying the impacts of climate change.

So all of us should have a right to sort of sue Big Oil and take on that fight.

For more information, visit Jamie Henn’s website at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Jamie Henn (20:18) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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