If the United States is going to get serious about combating climate change, it needs to have a strategy built around the right incentive structure. In other words, it’s about following the money. We live in a capitalist society where corporations call the shots, and they’re only going to do the right thing if it will have a positive impact on their bottom line.

This is exactly why a number of U.S. cities and states are beginning to file lawsuits against the big oil companies, threatening to make them pay the cost of reducing the American carbon footprint. The Houston Chronicle reports that Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil and others are in the crosshairs.

The thinking is simple. The accelerating pace of climate change can largely be blamed on fossil fuels—most notably oil, gas and coal—that are releasing excessive carbon dioxide. By fining the oil companies that generate these fuels, local governments can incentivize them to come up with more eco-friendly fuels.

“Like the tobacco companies that were successfully sued decades ago, we’re also suing five of the biggest including ExxonMobil, for example, who systematically poisoned the Earth, knew about it, covered it up, explained it away, tried to hook people more and more on their product,” said Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York.

Naturally, the oil company executives say they’ve done nothing wrong, and they don’t think it’s fair to scapegoat their companies for the worldwide issue of climate change. Ben van Beurden, CEO of Shell, argued that it’s unfair for Americans to choose to spend billions on the company’s fuels and then blame the company after the fact.

“It’s sort of bizarre that the users of our products say, ‘Well, actually, we didn’t want your product. So why did you force it on us?’” van Beurden said.

The impact of these lawsuits is hard to project, as it’s unclear whether the courts even have the authority to decide who’s at fault for climate change. In one recent case, a judge in California dismissed suits filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland: he ruled that climate change was too broad a topic for a single court to decide and that Congress should take on this challenge instead. However, with a Republican Congress and a Republican currently occupying the Oval Office, it’s doubtful we’ll see any bold action to defend the environment soon.

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