The city of Kivalina and a federally recognized tribe, the Alaska Native village of Kivalina, sued Exxon Mobil Corp. and eight other oil companies, plus 14 power companies and one coal company in a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Francisco.
Kivalina is a traditional Inupiat Eskimo village of 391 about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage. It's built on an 8-mile barrier reef between the Chukchi Sea and Kivalina River.
Sea ice traditionally protected the community, whose economy is based in part on salmon fishing plus subsistence hunting of whale, seal, walrus, and caribou. But sea ice that forms later and melts sooner because of higher temperatures has left the community unprotected from fall and winter storm waves and surges that lash coastal communities.
"We are seeing accelerated erosion because of the loss of sea ice," City Administrator Janet Mitchell said in a statement. "We normally have ice starting in October, but now we have open water even into December so our island is not protected from the storms."
Relocation costs have been estimated at $400 million or more.
A spokesman for Exxon Mobil, Gantt Walton, said the company is reviewing the lawsuit and did not have immediate comment.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kivalina by two nonprofit legal organizations, The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment and the Native American Rights Fund, plus six law firms.
Reached by phone in Boston, attorney Matt Pawa said other lawsuits have been filed seeking damages from global warming.
"This is really the first one that a discretely identifiable victim of global warming has emerged," he said.
Damage to Kivalina from global warming has been documented in official government reports by the Army Corps of Engineers and the General Accounting Office, he said.
The lawsuit was filed in California, he said, because that's where many of the defendants are located or do business.
The lawsuit invokes the federal common law of public nuisance, he said, and every entity that contributes to the pollution problem harming Kivalina is liable.
"You can sue them one at a time or some subset of them," he said.
The lawsuit also accuses some of the defendants of a conspiracy to mislead the public regarding the causes and consequences of global warming.
Colleen Swan, tribal administrator of the Native Village of Kivalina, said the campaign of deception and denial about global warming must stop.
"Global warming and its effects are a reality we have to deal with," she said in a statement. "Peoples' lives are in danger because of it."
Without commenting on the lawsuit, Exxon Mobil's Walton said his company takes the issue of climate change seriously, and that the risks warrant action.
"Exxon Mobil is taking action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our operations, supporting research into technology breakthroughs and participating in constructive dialogues on policy options with NGOs, industry and policy makers," he said.
The other oil companies named were BP PLC, BP American Inc., BP Products North America, Inc., Chevron Corp. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., ConocoPhillips Co., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Shell Oil Co.
Also named were Peabody Energy Corp., a major coal producer, and power companies AES Corp., American Electric Power Co., Inc., American Electric Power Services Corp., DTE Energy Co., Duke Energy Corp., Dynegy Holdings, Inc., Edison International, MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co., Mirant Corp., NRG Energy, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., Reliant Energy Inc., The Southern Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.