Partnering with businesses — not suing them — is how N.J. should fight climate change

Anthony Russo.

Climate change is a serious and pressing issue in New Jersey, where our leaders are preparing their communities to adapt to the changing environment.

As consumers in an economy still powered in large part by oil and natural gas, we all have a role to play in confronting this shared challenge. That’s why lawsuits that allege energy producers are climate change villains are foolish and misguided, especially because targeting individual sectors for global-scale issues could seriously damage our local economy and business community.

With challenges as complicated as climate change, it’s tempting to think that someone, somewhere nearby must be to blame.

That’s what some state and local governments, spurred by for-profit trial lawyers, have been trying to claim for years when it comes to climate change. They allege that, because the oil and gas produced and sold by energy companies are significant sources of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, those companies should be financially responsible for weather events, ranging from rising sea levels to forest fires.

This is nonsensical, of course, as energy producers in New Jersey are simply providing the fuel sources we need to live our lives every day. Oil and gas literally fuel the state’s economy.

New Jersey is the nation’s 13th-largest petroleum consumer, with our transportation sector relying heavily on fossil fuels. Nearly half of the electricy that powers New Jersey homes and businesses comes from natural gas.

We’re nowhere close to abandoning fossil fuels, despite the state’s official goal to be 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035. Our leaders need to acknowledge this reality, recognizing that you can’t just flip a switch and walk away from fossil fuels or ignore the approximately 140,643 New Jerseyans who make their living in these energy sectors.

And, because the legal foundation is so flimsy, it would be easy to disregard climate change lawsuits in our local courts as harmless distractions. However, they present a more serious threat. Not only have they grown in number, these lawsuits have gained momentum because court rulings allow them to be heard in Superior Court.

Whether any of these baseless lawsuits succeeds, they do create a roadmap for targeting other industries for the next crisis of tomorrow.

The pharmaceutical and chemical sectors, two other huge drivers of the New Jersey economy, also could find themselves in the crosshairs of lawsuits should we allow baseless lawsuits to continue unchecked.

It’s easy to claim that any industry has stated something “false” or “misleading,” as climate lawsuits allege oil and gas companies have. This is why these lawsuits make any of the nearly 1 million small businesses in our state potential targets for future litigation. New Jersey officials must recognize climate lawsuits as a slippery slope to real harm for our state’s economy.

The better path for New Jersey is to engage with private companies rather than sue them, working together to develop and deploy the technologies and solutions that will actually move the needle on climate change.

This should be common sense, as the efforts of the energy industry itself to transition to natural gas recently helped America lead the world in reducing energy-related CO2 emissions.

This kind of innovation and collaboration was highlighted by the Center for the New Energy Economy, which suggested New Jersey adopt “policy stacking,” the strategy of sequencing state policy in a way that reinforces market certainty and private-sector investment and creates strong conditions for achieving goals.

This would include removing legal barriers to clean energy technology adoption, barriers that should include harmful climate lawsuits.

Partnering with businesses, rather than lawsuits against them, is how New Jersey should do its part to combat climate change.

Anthony Russo is the president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey.