Baltimore County Council fails a (pretty darn easy) climate change test | COMMENTARY

Baltimore County Council holds their first in-person meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic over two years ago. Nov. 21, 2022.

Let’s say you hold elected office, and a San Francisco-based law firm that specializes in holding polluters accountable approaches your jurisdiction with an offer. So-and-so industry has misled government regulators and knowingly done great harm to your constituents, you are told. The law firm says is filing a lawsuit against these allegedly irresponsible companies, and if you agree to sign on as a plaintiff at no cost, your constituents will share in any financial settlement or court-ordered award, and, thus, potentially be made whole. If the law firm is unsuccessful, it will not charge you a dime. Many of your neighbors — municipalities, counties and states — have already signed on. So, what do you do?

Here are your choices:

  1. Answer with a resounding “yes” and lobby your fellow officeholders to do the same.
  2. Ask a lot of questions. Make sure everyone involved is acting in good faith. And with proper assurances, sign on.
  3. Express deep ambivalence (perhaps you aren’t a fan of lawyers or courts or your constituents) but, recognizing there is no downside to the folks who elected you, ultimately sign on.
  4. Tell them to take a hike.

If you answered 1, 2 or 3, congratulations, you have fallen somewhere in the normal range. If your preference was 4, you have just demonstrated the same poor judgment exercised by some members of the Baltimore County Council. This month, after too few members failed to express support for the proposed lawsuits against fossil fuel companies over their contribution to climate change, the law firm essentially withdrew the offer.

The lack of support was made clear through comments in a recent County Council work session, including the keen observation by Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, that county vehicles run on gasoline, which makes them an oil industry customer. By that same reasoning, local governments could never have sued Big Tobacco over negligence and unethical practices (litigation that has produced billions of settlement dollars for Marylanders) because, well, Maryland’s cigarette smokers are customers, too.


The Sher Edling law firm’s claim against companies including ExxonMobil is not simply that burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases that are harmful to the planet of which, at last check, Baltimore County was a part. It’s that these companies knew the harm they were causing but failed to disclose it or, worse, deliberately downplayed it. Will this be a winning argument with the courts? We don’t know. But given the seriousness of the allegation — essentially that we’ve been victimized by a disinformation campaign — one would think the responsible position is to allow the legal fact-finding to move forward.

Many living in Baltimore County may have been a bit dumbfounded by this rejection. That seems to have included County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., who issued a statement observing that the county is still opposed to climate change and left the door open to revisiting the matter when the new council is sworn in Dec. 5 (with two of the seven posts filled by new members). “As we prepare to welcome a new Council, we remain fully committed to exploring every opportunity to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on our residents and communities,” his statement reads.

Thankfully, the new council will not include Tom Quirk, the 1st District Democrat who was term limited and, when the lawsuit was discussed, expressed concern that any expense to oil companies through “ambulance-chasing” lawsuits would be passed along to consumers. First, Baltimore County’s participation doesn’t mean the litigation doesn’t take place, only that Quirk’s constituents won’t directly benefit from its resolution. And second, what a curious case of Stockholm syndrome. By that logic, oil companies ought to be free to destroy the planet in the name of lower prices at the pump. County residents may lose land to rising sea levels, suffer droughts, heat waves and more severe weather, but let’s not start pointing fingers at the perpetrators.

Even by political standards, this seems shortsighted. Anne Arundel County, a subdivision generally more politically conservative than Baltimore County, has joined the spate of climate change litigation. So have dozens of cities and states across the country, including, most recently, New Jersey. None of these lawsuits are guaranteed success. But supporting such litigation shows that elected officials in these communities recognize the terrible price they are destined to pay for the pending climate disaster and that they would prefer to see that bill footed by the folks responsible — at least if those folks misled regulators. Why is such a position regarded as anything but common sense?

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.