Commentary: Protecting Delawareans from the fossil fuel industry

By Kathleen Jennings and Shawn Garvin

Hurricanes. Extreme heat. Flooding. Wildfires. The climate crisis is leaving its mark everywhere, including the destruction we just experienced during Tropical Storm Isaias. But those events in the news only scratch the surface of the extensive damage, and bill, Delaware faces. Delaware is already being forced to spend taxpayer dollars planning for, adapting to and enduring the climate change impacts that are here today and that will only get worse with time.

Simply put: Climate change is real, and it is happening in our backyard. Sea level rise, coastal flooding, drought and extreme temperatures are harming our economy, our environment and our people — not in the future, but right now.

Kathleen Jennings

It didn’t have to be this way. The fossil fuel industry knew for decades that their products would lead to climate change with potentially “severe” and even “catastrophic” consequences — their words, not ours. But they didn’t clean up their practices or warn anyone to minimize the peril they were creating. Instead, they spent decades deliberately and systematically deceiving the nation about what they knew would happen if they carried on with business as usual.

As a result, here is just a sample of what we’re facing in Delaware.

Rising sea levels are a grave threat. Delaware has the lowest average elevation of any state and has already experienced over 1 foot of sea level rise. By 2050, sea levels will rise an additional 1 to 2 feet, and by 2100, up to 5 feet, according to predictions prepared by the Delaware Sea-Level Rise Technical Committee in 2017.

Sea level rise alone threatens more than $1 billion in property value, and the loss of our beaches jeopardizes a $3.5 billion, 44,000-job tourism industry. To put that in perspective: Our entire state budget is $4 billion. While sea level rise certainly affects our coastal communities, with more than 22,000 Delawareans directly in harm’s way, its impacts to drinking water, flooding and irrigation will affect all parts of our state. For example, substantial flooding from climate change is projected in east and south Wilmington, where poverty rates as high as 32% will exacerbate the harm done.

This has been a hot summer, but by 2050, parts of Delaware are expected to face an additional 30 days per year with a heat index above 105 degrees. More than 20,000 Delawareans are especially vulnerable to extreme heat, and due to systemic inequities, communities of color and low-income communities are particularly vulnerable to those extreme heat events.

Shawn M. Garvin

Fossil fuel-induced climate change is also putting Delaware’s vaunted farmers and agriculture economy at risk. More frequent droughts, more destructive storms and saltwater intrusion into croplands are becoming the norm, which leads to crop losses, reduced yields and higher costs for infrastructure, energy and irrigation.

We know that Delaware will have to adapt to, and protect itself from, these ongoing threats. The question is, Who will pay for it? It shouldn’t be our farmers, taxpayers and coastal businesses. It should be the fossil fuel companies that knowingly caused the problem, deceived us all about the threat and made trillions of dollars along the way.

That’s why we are taking them to court. Last week, we filed a lawsuit in Delaware Superior Court on behalf of Delawareans to hold 31 fossil fuel companies accountable for decades of deception in creating climate change and the harm that it’s causing in Delaware, and for the mounting costs of surviving those effects.

As the state’s top law enforcement and natural resource officials, it is our job to protect Delawareans. That includes protection from giant businesses that put their profits before our health, safety and environment. Our lawsuit aims to remove the burden of these costs from Delaware’s taxpayers and put it back where it belongs: on fossil fuel companies who knew the harm their actions would cause.

Kathleen Jennings is the attorney general of Delaware.

Shawn Garvin is secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.