Oped by Caren Fitzpatrick, of Linwood, is an Atlantic County Commissioner

When I heard the devastating stories of people impacted by the winter storm in Texas, I was reminded of New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy. Nine years later, we are still dealing with the consequences. We know firsthand that the path to recovery will be long, and we know that making a state more resilient against extreme weather events is expensive and comes at a massive cost to taxpayers.

Here in Atlantic County, and in other communities along the New Jersey coast, we know too well how vulnerable we are to climate change impacts like increasingly severe storms, rising seas and flooding. Like we saw in Texas with power outages and frozen pipes, these issues are a matter of practicality. Rising sea levels create higher tides and road closures due to flooding, which prevent children from getting to school and working families from getting to their jobs. These impacts — and their associated costs — are even more pronounced in low-income communities and communities of color, like the back bay area of Atlantic City and the Lakes Bay area of Egg Harbor Township.

New Jersey is fortunate to have climate leaders among state officials, who are taking bold action to confront these threats. But the necessary work to invest in clean energy technologies and make the state more resilient will still cost taxpayers. For example, Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed a law (A-2785/S-2607) requiring municipalities to include climate change in master plan updates and identify where infrastructure is vulnerable. Even this assessment, while necessary, will likely create new costs for already struggling municipal budgets.

We can’t forget that this crisis, and the financial burden it places on taxpayers, wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Internal documents show that oil and gas companies knew for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to catastrophic consequences. Instead of warning the public, they spent millions lying about climate change in order to protect their bottom line.

When I first learned about the deception of oil and gas companies, I was furious. I don’t want to see New Jersey taxpayers get stuck with a multi-billion dollar bill to protect homes, families, jobs, economies, infrastructure and public health from the impacts of climate change. Instead, I want to see New Jersey and state leaders join the fight to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable.

Municipal leaders here are taking action. The city of Hoboken, which faces existential threats from flooding, has filed a lawsuit seeking to make fossil fuel companies pay their fair share. But we know that not every community is going to have the resources to take action on their own.

Some of neighboring states, like Connecticut and Delaware, have already taken legal action against fossil fuel companies. These lawsuits are not about solving climate change; they’re about surviving it and holding accountable those who are most responsible. As one of the most climate-vulnerable states, New Jersey cannot afford to remain on the sidelines.

I have been part of a bipartisan group of New Jersey officials who are calling on Murphy and Attorney General Grewal to take legal action on behalf of the state to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. Last year, a bipartisan group of state legislators introduced SR57 also calling for them to “pursue legal action against fossil fuel companies for damages caused by climate change.”

In July 2020, at my urging, the Atlantic County Board of Commissioners passed its own resolution calling for the passage of SR57. Several other counties and municipalities have passed similar resolutions in support. Grewal recently said that his office is considering more climate change litigation, and I hope he hears the growing calls for accountability. There is precedent for such action in New Jersey. Murphy’s recently announced $100 million statewide electric vehicle program is funded in part through a settlement with Volkswagen over that company’s efforts to cheat emissions standards.

This work recently compelled me to join Leaders for Climate Accountability, a new national network of state and local officials committed to holding oil and gas companies accountable for their role in creating and perpetuating the climate crisis. As a leader for climate accountability, I plan to use my voice and my office to advocate for the interests of Atlantic County and all of New Jersey.