Charleston, the architectural jewel of the US south, has survived the ravages of revolutionary wars, an earthquake and even a siege waged by the notorious pirate Blackbeard. But the city now needs saving from its largest existential threat yet – the climate crisis.
Flooding has, in recent years, become a regular menace to streets lined with colonial and Georgian buildings. Protecting the historic core of South Carolina’s largest city from being consumed by the rising seas now comes with such a hefty price tag – around $2b – that Charleston is pinning its hopes on a bold gambit to force fossil fuel companies to foot the bill.
Charleston recently became the first city in the US south to sue large oil firms for damages, claiming they concealed knowledge that their product would heat up the planet and cause the sort of inundation that now bedevils many coastal cities around the world.
A trove of internal documents show oil companies knew from at least the 1960s that burning oil and other fossil fuels would cause the global temperature to rise, triggering heatwaves and causing the seas to rise due to rapidly melting glaciers. Charleston’s lawsuit claims that by obscuring these findings and funding a campaign of misinformation, the oil companies are liable for damage caused due to deception.
“It’s tragic, just imagine what we could’ve done to avoid all this if they didn’t deceive everyone,” said John Tecklenburg, Charleston’s mayor, who said the world hasn’t seen such flooding “since Noah built the Ark”.
Flooding was a rare occurrence when Tecklenburg, who is 65, was growing up in Charleston but it now blights the city. Each of his five years as mayor has seen a major flood, with Hurricane Matthew, in 2016, and Hurricane Irma, in 2017, causing vast volumes of water to pour over the Battery, a historic seawall and tourist drawcard.
“Our city and harbor became one,” he said. “It’s now an annual occurrence. People’s homes have been damaged, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in insurance claims. It’s a major threat to our city.”
Even regular high tides now drench downtown Charleston, which is perched on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. Half a century ago, water flowed onto the streets around four days a year. By 2019, this had increased to around 89 days a year on average. Within 30 years, Charleston faces its downtown streets being underwater every other day of the year.
Several people have had their homes inundated multiple times, others have fled the city while some with the means to do so have made the costly decision to elevate their stately abodes beyond the reach of the floodwater, 16ft or more above the mean sea level.
“You’ve got these multimillion dollar homes that are historic, so what can you do?” said Buz Morris, an architect who has overseen the raising of seven homes in the last few years. “On a rainy day here you can a foot or two of water in the street. We are helping protect the historic fabric of Charleston.”
The majority of residents can’t afford such expensive fixes, however, so the city is looking to make a huge investment to fend off the encroaching Atlantic ocean. A new seawall, fortifying the aging Battery, and a new network of drainage tunnels will, Charleston hopes, buy it some time. “This is a treasure of a city, a gem of American history and elegance,” said Tecklenburg. “I’m not going to be the mayor that raises the white flag of surrender and evacuates.”
The Charleston lawsuit – which targets a clutch of oil companies including Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron – is the latest in a flurry of court actions aimed at forcing fossil fuel giants to meet the mounting costs of the climate crisis they helped stoke. Since 2017, nearly two dozen cities, counties and states, including San Francisco, New York and Massachusetts, have attempted to recover billions of dollars from the industry.
Over the past week this number has swelled further, with Hoboken in New Jersey, the state of Delaware and Charleston entering the fray. “We are seeking accountability from some of the world’s most powerful businesses to pay for the mess they’ve made,” said Kathy Jennings, Delaware’s attorney general.
These efforts have yet to garner a significant breakthrough, with a number of cases dismissed by judges, as the oil companies have argued the moves are a frivolous waste of time. “There is no merit to the claims,” said a Chevron spokesman in response to the Charleston lawsuit. “They are not a serious solution to a serious problem. There is no evidence Chevron misled the public about climate change. Those claims are false.”
Climate activists have retained hope, however, that the courts will start to swing behind the cases and have been further buoyed by promises made by Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for US president, that his administration would pursue fossil fuel companies for climate damages.
The best sign the legal strategy is working is that “these cases are proceeding through the court system”, according to Ama Francis, a fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
“The public is ready to hold this corrupt industry accountable for causing and lying about climate change, and officials across the country are stepping up to take action,” said Richard Wiles, executive director of the Center for Climate Integrity.
“As climate change floods cities like Charleston, Big Oil is now knee-deep in lawsuits seeking justice for decades of the industry’s lying about their central role in causing the problem.”