Melissa Sims Featured in TIME100 Climate List
by Brian Eckert
Milberg Senior Counsel Melissa K. Sims has been named to the inaugural TIME100 Climate list for her work on a groundbreaking climate change lawsuit on behalf of Puerto Rico communities devastated by the 2017 hurricane season.
TIME’s list draws attention to individuals whose actions are making significant progress in fighting climate change. Ms. Sims, who is representing 16 Puerto Rican municipalities in a class action lawsuit against some of the planet’s largest fossil fuel companies, was included in the “Defenders” category alongside prominent figures that include Billie Eilish, John Kerry, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Rachel Levine.
In her TIME profile, Ms. Sims says climate change action must adopt a holistic strategy focused on corporate accountability and the needs of underserved communities that may be more exposed to the worst effects of climate change. A 2021 EPA report states that the most severe harms of climate change, such as extreme temperatures, flooding, and air quality, have the greatest impact on socially vulnerable populations.
Climate activism must center its efforts on countering the uneven effects of climate change on communities of color and those in poverty, while also pressing for corporate accountability.
When asked about the single most important action that needs to be taken over the next year to advance the climate agenda, Ms. Sims told TIME it’s essential to prioritize areas that include public health and education, land and housing rights, and global disparities.
“Addressing the needs of impoverished and marginalized communities is pivotal in the fight against climate change,” said Ms. Sims. “These groups often bear the brunt of climate change, facing its direct repercussions with minimal resources at their disposal for mitigation and resilience.”
Puerto Rico Fossil Fuel Company Climate Change Lawsuit
Ms. Sims’ message to TIME resonates with the legal work she is doing on behalf of Puerto Rico. Her lawsuit describes the Commonwealth as the “canary in the coalmine” for climate change due to its vulnerability to coastal erosion, sea level rise, and stronger hurricanes, all of which are associated with a warming planet.
The Global Climate Risk Index 2020 report found Puerto Rico has been affected by climate change more than anywhere else in the world.
Puerto Rico also has one of the highest poverty levels in the United States. Forty-three percent of Puerto Rico’s population lives below the federal poverty level—a rate three times as high as the overall U.S. poverty rate.
Poverty and overall economic conditions in the Commonwealth took a turn for the worse with the series of hurricanes that struck the island in 2017. Hurricane Maria alone caused an estimated $120 billion in damages to Puerto Rico.
Ms. Sims argues in Municipalities of Puerto Rico v. Exxon Mobil Corp. et al. that the greenhouse gas emissions of oil, coal, and gas companies have unfairly forced Puerto Rico to incur climate change-related costs. According to the Climate Accountability Institute’s Carbon Majors research, from 1965 – 2017, the defendant oil and coal companies were responsible for 40.01% of all global industrial GHG emissions.
Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that GHG emissions from fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change. A recent study found that top fossil fuel companies, including defendants Exxon and Chevron, are driving half of global warming. Experts believe that global warming could be intensifying storms by up to 30%.
Ms. Sims and Milberg in the Media
TIME is one of many publications to recognize the efforts of Ms. Sims to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for climate change and its economic consequences. She and her lawsuit have garnered widespread media coverage since the Puerto Rico case was filed just over a year ago in federal court, including in the following publications:
- The Columbia Law School blog writes that the case brought by the municipalities of Puerto Rico can be understood as “forming part of a broader U.S. and global climate change litigation movement” that builds on issues raised in climate change cases worldwide.
- The Guardian highlights how the Puerto Rico climate change lawsuit relies on the Racketeer and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Ms. Sims tells the Guardian that what differentiates this RICO case from others is the actions of fossil fuel companies and their allies “to change public opinion regarding the use of their consumer products by telling people something that they knew was not true” is in writing. Internal documents from investor-owned fossil fuel companies show that, by 1980, they were aware of the threat posed by their products and could have taken steps to reduce their risks.
- The New York Times feature on Ms. Sims notes the role faith plays in her climate change crusade. The Times describes Ms. Sims, an observant Catholic, as “the singular force behind a creative legal gambit to make oil and gas companies pay for the devastation being wrought by climate change in Puerto Rico.”
- CNN interviewed Ms. Sims and Richard Wiles of the Center for Climate Integrity about their mission to make oil and gas companies pay for climate damages in Puerto Rico. She talks about the “apocalyptic” conditions on the island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and why she’s optimistic this first-of-its kind climate change lawsuit will succeed in holding the defendants liable based on the merits of the science presented.