US voters overwhelmingly support holding Big Oil accountable for climate crisis, poll reveals

New poll reveals widespread public backing for legal action against fossil fuel companies, with nearly half of voters also supporting criminal charges.

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New data reveals that a significant majority of U.S. voters are in favor of legal action against fossil fuel companies for their contributions to climate change, with nearly half also backing the filing of criminal charges.

A recent poll conducted by Data for Progress and Public Citizen has brought to light the widespread public support for holding oil and gas companies legally accountable for their role in the climate crisis. Conducted on May 3-4, 2024, the survey questioned 1,206 likely voters in the United States. The results are striking: 62% of respondents believe that fossil fuel companies should face legal consequences for their contributions to climate change, which includes impacts on extreme weather events and public health.

Grace Adcox, senior climate strategist at Data for Progress with Fossil Free Media, emphasized the strong public desire for accountability. “Voters strongly want to see companies held accountable for their harmful actions,” Adcox said, as reported by The Guardian.

The poll uncovered substantial bipartisan support for holding big oil accountable. Among Democrats, a striking 84% supported legal action, while 59% of Independents and even 40% of Republicans shared this view. The support for criminal charges, although slightly lower, was still significant: 49% of all respondents indicated they would “somewhat” or “strongly” support criminal charges against oil and gas companies. This included 68% of Democrats, 32% of Republicans, and a notable portion of Independents.

Aaron Regunberg, senior policy counsel for Public Citizen’s climate program, noted the importance of these findings. “A significant number of Republicans would support these prosecutions, even if none of their party’s leaders have the courage to buck their fossil fuel donors,” he remarked. This sentiment is crucial as it highlights a potential shift in public opinion that could drive political and legal action against these companies.

Litigation against fossil fuel companies is not a new phenomenon but is gaining momentum globally. Across the United States, communities have been filing lawsuits against these companies, accusing them of misleading the public about the dangers of climate change. Currently, there are 40 civil lawsuits brought by cities and states in the U.S. against major oil companies. These lawsuits aim to hold the companies accountable for the environmental and public health damages resulting from their activities.

Internationally, the fight against fossil fuel companies has seen significant developments. Just last week, France initiated the first-ever criminal lawsuit related to climate change. This unprecedented move sets a powerful example and underscores the growing trend of using legal means to address the climate crisis.

Public Citizen has proposed an even more aggressive legal strategy: filing criminal charges against fossil fuel companies. The rationale is based on the argument that these companies knowingly caused pollution with potentially deadly consequences while delaying action to combat climate change. This, proponents argue, could constitute grounds for reckless or negligent homicide charges.

While this idea initially met with skepticism, it has gained traction among some district attorneys’ offices. Regunberg noted that several offices have given the proposal “real, serious interest,” suggesting that there may be a legal path forward for such charges.

The concept of criminal accountability for corporate actions is not entirely without precedent. In the United States, energy companies like BP and PG&E have previously pled guilty to charges of homicide, resulting in fines and penalties totaling billions of dollars. However, these cases were not specifically related to climate change, highlighting the potential for new legal precedents to be established.

Chesa Boudin, former San Francisco district attorney, commented on the potential for setting new legal precedents. “The fact that this hasn’t been done before may lead many to say, well, it can’t be done, there’s no precedent. But there was no precedent for anything until there was,” Boudin told The Guardian. His statement underscores the evolving nature of legal accountability and the possibility of groundbreaking litigation.

The results of the Data for Progress poll indicate a strong public mandate for holding fossil fuel companies accountable. This sentiment could influence political leaders and legal institutions to take more decisive action. Adcox pointed out that while gaining political support for criminal lawsuits might be challenging, the poll results show it is not outside the realm of possibility. “These national findings show these cases may be able to earn popular support, particularly in blue jurisdictions,” Adcox said.

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