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Charleston’s leaders must demonstrate true leadership on climate issues


Chad Connelly, former chairman of the S.C. Republican Party. IMAGE PROVIDED
 

By Chad Connelly

 

In many ways, South Carolina is a modern-day success story — a shining example of the things can be achieved under the right leadership. Our state’s reputation for low taxes, reasonable regulations and welcoming attitude towards business has made it one of the top states to move to and a destination for a variety of exciting new business ventures.

            This strategic approach has yielded dividends, but it is currently being jeopardized by the rogue actions of some local governments. The city of Charleston’s ongoing climate lawsuit, for example, was initiated by former mayor John Tecklenburg and is part of a wider trend of similar legal actions playing out in several blue states and localities across the nation. But as the only lawsuit of its kind in the southeast, it has made S.C. an outlier in the region and risks harming the reputation of the city and, by extension, that of our state as a good place to live and do business.

            As the new mayor of Charleston assumes office, he must decide whether to stay the course or withdraw from this misguided climate lawsuit, and making the right choice is crucial. Charleston’s climate lawsuit aims to hold oil and companies accountable for their alleged role in climate change and its purported impacts on the city and is flawed in many ways:  Not only is it legally dubious; it also has the potential to cause significant economic harm in the Palmetto State while doing nothing to address the issues that its backers insist are the underlying impacts of climate change.

            To start, to prove the alleged public nuisance claims would be nearly impossible — to date, no state has successfully litigated such a claim against an energy company for climate change. That’s because emissions are global and it’s impossible to prove a relationship between the activities of a company and its alleged impact on climate change on the local level in specific cities or states. Singling out energy manufacturers is not only misplaced, but should these lawsuits succeed, the very governments who brought them in could inadvertently (and ironically) open themselves up to similar legal action by virtue of the fact they are also consumers of fossil fuels and produce carbon emissions.

            Meanwhile, attorneys representing other local governments in these lawsuits have acknowledged that one of the goals of these lawsuits is to “raise the price” of fuel so that climate change will ultimately “get priced into them.” This would only worsen inflation and raise the costs of energy for residents across our state, many of whom already face some of the highest electric bills in the country at a time when most families can barely afford the cost of living.

More ironically, these lawsuits will also hinder an industry that will be a key partner in working to reduce emissions. According to research from Ernest & Young oil and gas companies will “have a significant role to play both in energy delivery today and in enabling the energy transition for tomorrow.” Political leaders should be welcoming and collaborating on such private sector efforts, which are more likely to result in practical, scalable solutions that benefit both the environment and the economy. However, climate lawsuits hamper such public-private partnerships.

            As a new leader with fresh perspectives, and the first Republican elected mayor in Charleston since the 1870s, William Cogswell has the unique opportunity to recalibrate the city’s approach to environmental issues. Withdrawing from its climate change lawsuit would not be an admission of defeat or a sign of diminishing concern for the environment or the challenges facing Charleston. Instead, it could inspire other leaders to pursue paths that emphasize dialogue and partnership over confrontation and litigation and serve as a catalyst for a statewide — if not national — reevaluation of how we confront environmental challenges.

 

Chad Connelly is the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and has a professional background in civil and environmental engineering.

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