Wildfires. Drought. Flooding. Rising sea levels. Climate change is already reshaping and impacting BC communities in profound and frightening ways. As unchecked fossil fuel pollution continues to push global temperatures ever higher, we are frightened for our communities, for communities around the world, and for the world we leave our children. – Letter to BC local governments from community groups, 25 January 2017
On January 25, 2017, we, along with dozens of organizations from across British Columbia, sent a letter to each and every local government in the province – asking the Mayors and Councils to take action to demand that the fossil fuel industry pay its fair share for the costs that our communities are suffering from climate change.
Such action would take the form of “climate accountability letters” sent by the local governments, demanding fossil companies to take responsibility for the harm their product are causing, but we are also asking the local governments to consider bringing a class action lawsuit – a joint lawsuit on behalf of all BC local governments – against some of the world’s largest fossil fuel cartels.
The idea that fossil fuel companies should pay for some of the impacts of climate change may seem surprising, shocking or ridiculous to some – because this is not an idea that has been on the public radar. It has been much-discussed by some within the legal and insurance communities, and has even been the subject of (as yet unsuccessful) lawsuits in the U.S. and in Germany, but as a society we have generally accepted the assumption that climate change is caused by individual consumers who burn fossil fuels, rather than the multi-billion dollar industry that extracts and markets those fossil fuels.
The case for fossil fuel company accountability
The argument that fossil fuel companies are in some meaningful way “responsible” – to a considerable extent – for climate change received a major boost late in 2013, with a the publication of a ground-breaking study in the peer reviewed publication, Climatic Change, examining the sources of the fossil fuels in the global atmosphere. Richard Heede, described by Science Magazine as “the Climate Accountant,” painstakingly assembled data from corporate reports to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide and methane originating primarily with major corporate and nationalized fossil fuel industry operations – both directly and from the use of their products. Heede found that just 90 entities were collectively responsible for almost 2/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, and he calculated the share of individual companies (Chevron’s products and its direct operations have resulted in approximately 3.34% of the human caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today).
These same companies have made hundreds of billions of dollars of profits from selling oil, gas, and coal – knowing (since at least the 1960s) that these products would cause serious climate impacts. A 1968 report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute, acknowledged that the “fossil fuel emanation theory” explained rising levels of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. Citing an earlier 1957 scientific article, the report states:
… [M]an is now engaged with a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth. Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic changes.
In many cases, these same fossil fuel companies funded mis-information campaigns and lobbied against action on climate change.
At about this point in the conversation we often hear someone say “but we are all responsible for climate change – it’s our life-style, our society, and not the responsibility of any one company.”
Fair enough – but if we’re all responsible for climate change, then that includes Chevron, and Exxon Mobil, and the other fossil fuel companies. Sure we’re all responsible for climate change. But can’t we all agree that the multi-billion dollar transnational companies that profited from taking the fossil fuels that cause climate change out of the ground are more responsible than individual consumers – and have a greater responsibility to help sort this out?
Because right now, when Vancouver needs to build an $800 million storm surge protector due to rising sea levels, Chevron doesn’t pay a dime. And when there is flooding in Fernie, Exxon Mobil doesn’t really care.
Why does it matter?
It’s clear why shifting at least a bit of the blame for climate change from us as individual consumers onto these fossil fuel companies feels good. But if the goal is fighting climate change and building a better future, does it really matter?
The answer is clearly yes. When we’re trying to build a sustainable future, we need all hands on deck. And it obviously doesn’t help if someone is making massive profits off of pollution. That’s the central insight behind international law’s Polluter Pays Principle. Fossil fuel companies, unlike individuals, have the resources and size to invest in alternatives and make substantial differences to our economy – but they have little incentive to do so if they can make profits without paying for the harm that their products cause.
Not only that, but the fossil fuel industry is the public face of the fossil fuel economy. Talking about the harm that fossil fuel companies cause our communities directly challenges the sense that oil and gas are a normal and inevitable part of our society.
Finally, talking about the harm caused by global fossil fuel pollution gets us out of a very limited conversation about national emissions. How often have we heard: “Well, Canada only contributes about 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, so anything we do here is meaningless.” (Canada is, in fact, one of the ten largest emitting countries in the world, and our emissions are one of the highest per capita. So if we can make these arguments with a straight face, it stands to reason that pretty much everyone else can too.)
Well, then let’s talk about Chevron’s responsibility (3.34%); and Exxon Mobil’s (3.1%); and Saudi Aramco’s (3.29%), etc. Canadian insisting on accountability from these companies can have a global impact. And let’s talk about the fact that we can sue them in Canada – because the harm that their products caused has occurred in Canada.
The Tobacco Precedent
It was once surprising, shocking and ridiculous to suggest that the tobacco industry was partly to blame for cigarette-related deaths. It’s the smokers – it’s not us – the Industry insisted. They boasted that they had never lost a case related to tobacco related illness or death – and would never lose a case.
And yet that perception shifted in a relatively short period of time. Not only do we take it for granted that the tobacco industry should take responsibility for their product – but the credibility of the industry has plummeted – changing social attitudes to smoking the world over.
When we see a similar shift in social attitudes to the fossil fuel industry, then we’re going to see some real action on climate change.
Dear BC Local Governments
We hope that you will hear more about efforts to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable in coming weeks, months and years – gaining momentum just as the conversation about the accountability of Big Tobacco ones did.
BC communities are going to be having that conversation. We leave you with the close of the letter that we, and many other, organizations sent to our local governments.
Whether we realize it or not, our communities are facing a tidal wave of costs, debt and disaster relief arising from the many effects of climate change. It is time to ask whether we alone are going to bear those expenses, or whether the companies that have made billions of dollars creating this situation also bear some responsibility.
By demanding that those who profit the most from climate change pay their fair share, BC local governments can dramatically reshape the global conversation about climate change and the fossil fuel industry. Community groups around BC will be calling on fossil fuel companies to take responsibility for their role in causing the climate crisis and we hope that you will join us.
Co-authored with Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel, West Coast Environmental Law Association