San Francisco estimates it will cost $5 billion to shore up its seawall long-termSan Francisco estimates that fortifying its seawall will cost $5 billion. Photo credit: Sergio Ruiz via Flickr

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By Amy Westervelt

When U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup dismissed San Francisco and Oakland’s climate liability suits against five of the world’s largest oil companies last week, his ruling ignored the central question of the suit: who should be responsible for paying for the impacts of climate change? In his earlier hearing, Alsup seemed to struggle with the idea that cities could even anticipate what those costs are, imagining them to be unpredictable and far in the future.

But climate change adaptation costs are already piling up for the Bay Area cities. And in place of another way to raise money, San Francisco is sending a referendum to voters this November to vote on paying $425 million to repair the Embarcadero seawall, which is only a small part of a projected $5 billion long-term plan to upgrade the seawall to protect the city from sea level rise.

Globally, seas have risen 8 inches since industry started burning fossil fuels and forecasts predict 2 to 4 more feet of sea level rise this century.

“The costs of climate change are here, and they are only getting more expensive,” San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera said. “Without our litigation, the public will pay for everything—adaptation, mitigation and repair— while the companies who profited off creating this situation walk away with a windfall at taxpayer expense.”

San Francisco and Oakland have not yet announced whether they will appeal Alsup’s dismissal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Despite the fact that the cities are already paying for climate change, Alsup questioned the anticipated price tag listed in their complaints.

“You’re asking for billions of dollars for something that hasn’t happened yet in Oakland, for example, and it may never happen to the same extent that you’re predicting in the Complaint,” the judge said to Steve Berman, lead attorney for the cities. “Why don’t we just wait and see if it happens, and if the Corps of Engineers doesn’t build a dike and the City of Oakland has to pay millions of dollars for a sea wall, okay, then—but that hasn’t even occurred yet.”

Berman countered that the cities are already paying for climate change, and pointed to San Francisco’s complaint, in which the costs are clearly spelled out.

“Global warming places at risk at least $10 billion dollars of public property within San Francisco and as much as $39 billion of private property,” one paragraph reads. “In 2016, San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee announced an initial investment of $8 million over the next two years to initiate City efforts to fortify the Seawall,” another paragraph states. “Short-term seawall upgrades are expected to cost more than $500 million. Long-term upgrades to the seawall are projected to cost $5 billion.”

San Francisco and Oakland filed their suits last September against five major oil companies—Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips—seeking compensation for the impacts of climate change driven by fossil fuel burning. The cities did not specify an amount, but want the companies to pay into an abatement fund to deal with those impacts.

The $425 million seawall bond, approved unanimously by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in June, is one example of financial issues coastal cities are facing. “This is the type of price tag that should help a judge see it’s a real issue for the city,” Berman said.

San Francisco is not the first city to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for climate adaptation. Last year, Miami, led by Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado, put a $400 million obligation bond in front of its taxpayers to pay for climate adaptation measures and it passed.

Herrera has compared the damages requested in the climate cases to those secured in lead paint liability cases, in which three paint companies were ordered to pay $1.15 billion into an abatement fund to clean up lead paint in homes. “It would work the same way: The money would sit in an account to be used for climate adaptation or to deal with climate change-related damage as needed,” Herrera said.

The immediate repairs to the Embarcadero seawall can’t wait for the liability suit to be resolved, which is why the bond question is being sent to taxpayers. The cities—as well as the nearly dozen communities around the country pursuing liability cases against the oil industry—know those costs are only going to grow and don’t believe they can or should rely on taxpayer money to cover them.