The ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, Calif.

 (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Who pays for the damages caused by climate change? It’s a question that could be decided in the courts.

Last week, San Francisco and Oakland sued five major oil companies alleging they knew their products contributed to climate change -- and should pay billions of dollars into a fund to keep homes and neighborhoods safe from sea level rise.

Richard Heede, who directs the nonprofit Climate Accountability Institute in Snowmass, has been involved in research that also attempts to show accountability for climate change. That new research is published in the journal Climatic Change.

Researchers tracked carbon dioxide and methane emissions coming from 90 fossil fuel companies over time and found these 90 corporations contributed between 42 to 50 percent of the rise in average global temperatures and 26 to 35 percent of global sea level rise.

This chart shows emissions traced to top 20 investor-owned and majority state-owned industrial carbon producers 1880 to 2010. 

(Courtesy Climatic Change)

Heede’s work hasn’t gone into the most recent lawsuits, but he tells Colorado Matters his research is being used in three other cases filed this summer by three separate coastal communities in California against 37 fossil fuel companies.

CPR News asked the Colorado Oil and Gas Association to comment on this report. COGA referred us to two of the companies that operate in the state and that were named in this study: ConcocoPhillips and ExxonMobil. ExxonMobil has not responded. ConocoPhillips said in an email that, “Given the recent litigation that’s been filed, regrettably we can’t engage in a conversation on this topic.” The company then referred us to its website “for details about our long and consistent position on climate change, and what the company has done regarding its operations and environmental footprint.”

CPR News also asked the American Petroleum Institute for its response - that’s the national trade association that represents the oil and gas industry. They’re still reviewing the study but a spokesperson emailed this statement: “The natural gas and oil industry is focused on addressing global climate change in its operations and will continue to play a leading role in driving down U.S. greenhouse gas and other emissions. The U.S. today is a world leader in reducing carbon emissions from energy use, and our industry invests more than any other industry in zero- and low-emissions technologies (almost as much as the federal government). Due to technology innovation and efficiency improvements, cleaner fuels, and the increased use of clean and abundant U.S. natural gas to produce electricity, the industry has significantly contributed to the reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that today are near 25-year lows."

Heede believes that fossil fuel companies are taking steps in the right direction.

"They’re increasingly switching to natural gas which is cleaner," he said. "And it’s true that U.S. emissions have declined but we need to make sure that the reduction is accelerated to an 80-percent reduction by 2050. If we don’t do that we will exceed 2 degree Celsius rise.” Heede believes that oil, gas and coal companies need to align their strategies to achieve this over time.