The past year has seen communities around the world dealing with major weather events. Here in Canada flooding in Quebec and unprecedented wildfires in BC displaced tens of thousands, while the southern U.S. and South East Asia suffered from intense storms. Forget about polar bears – these communities are the new face of climate change.
And it’s going to be costly. The Insurance Board of Canada has repeatedly warned that climate change is driving the costs of weather-related disasters ever upward, including after record breaking losses in 2016.
”Severe weather due to climate change is already costing Canadians billions of dollars annually,” said Don Forgeron, President and CEO, Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). “The record damage reported in 2016 is part of an upward trend that shows no signs of stopping.”
So it’s not surprising that communities around the world are beginning to be concerned about the costs that they are paying already paying due to climate change – and asking whether the fossil fuel industry, in creating and selling the products that give rise to climate change, should pay some of those costs. The past several months have seen BC communities publicly demand that the fossil fuel industry pay a share of climate costs, while in California 5 communities have filed lawsuits against fossil fuel companies for the costs of preparing for climate change.
The role of the fossil fuel industry
On one level, anyone who is aware of the science of climate change knows that there is a strong connection between the use of fossil fuels and rising global temperatures. Each year a thicker heat-trapping blanket of fossil fuel pollution – carbon dioxide, methane – is spread over the world’s surface, trapping more heat in our atmosphere, and causing global temperatures to soar.
But that scientific fact doesn’t seem to have got in the way of massive profits by the fossil fuel industry, or of governments, including Canada’s, doubling down on fossil fuel development as a path to job creation and economic wealth. The assumption has been that such profits and investments are just fine, as long as the government also regulates individual users of fossil fuels. As the costs of climate change to our communities becomes clearer, individuals and governments are increasingly paying for those costs as well – leaving the fossil fuel industry yet again off the hook.
This is not about “blaming” the industry. Rather, it’s about recognizing that the fossil fuel industry has played a major role in causing climate change and in opposing action on climate change, and needs to pay a share of the costs. We all are going to do our part to prepare for and deal with the economic fall-out of climate change, and until the fossil fuel industry pays its fair share, it has no incentive to work to transition towards a sustainable future.
A few fun facts to think about in considering what the oil and gas industry’s “fair share” might be:
- Richard Heede, known as the “carbon accountant,” has estimated that 90 entities are responsible – through their operations and their products – for almost 2/3 of the greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere today. The 20 largest fossil fuel companies are responsible for almost 30%.
- Oil industry scientists were publishing on climate science in the late 1950s, and a 1968 review of the science commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute confirmed that climate science about the relationship of fossil fuel combustion and global warming was sound, but warned that more needed to be done to “work towards systems in which CO2 emissions would be brought under control.”
- Fossil fuel companies have played an active role in spreading mis-information about climate science and in lobbying against climate change action. A recently conducted contextual analysis of documents produced by oil giant, Exxon Mobil found that its public statements on climate change generally questioned climate science while internal statements documents accepted it science.
Sending letters in BC
The Canadian conversation about the role of fossil fuel companies in causing local climate impacts took a step forward in June 2015, when the District of Highlands, a small local government on southern Vancouver Island, became the first municipality in the world to write a “climate accountability” letter to 20 fossil fuel companies. Essentially the letter outlines some of the current and expected impacts of climate change in the Highlands and then asks the companies to pay a fair share of those costs. The letter reads:
We expect your industry to take cradle to grave responsibility for your product – and that starts by taking responsibility for its effects in the atmosphere and the resulting harm to communities.
In August, the District of Saanich, the ninth largest municipality in BC, voted to send its own letter.
We expect to see more of these letters sent in the near future. A recent poll conducted by West Coast indicated that 75% of British Columbians support their local government sending such a letter.
These letters do not, by themselves, force fossil fuel companies to pay for local climate impacts. But they do demonstrate a public appetite for holding the companies accountable, and will create opportunities for shareholders and others to ask questions about the companies’ fair shares.
Suing in California – and elsewhere
Two California communities – San Francisco and Oakland – filed lawsuits this week against a number of fossil fuel companies for their climate impacts. These new lawsuits join several actions launched against private fossil fuel companies for climate impacts in recent years:
- Luciano v. RWE (filed 2015) – A Peruvian farmer, Saul Luciano, is suing the German coal giant RWE in German courts for the risks posed to his home of Huaraz, Peru. The case was dismissed in 2016, but has since been appealed. Supported by an NGO, GermanWatch, this case has challenged Germans to talk about the global harm caused by coal. (We had the pleasure of meeting Saul at the 2015 Paris climate talks.)
- Philippines Human Rights Complaint against Carbon Majors (filed 2015) – Fifteen organizations, including Greenpeace Southeast Asia, and 20 individuals filed a human rights complaint alleging that the operations and products of 47 private fossil fuel companies were responsible for violating the rights of the people of the Philippines. The Philippines Human Rights Commission is undertaking an investigation. (We’ve written before on Canadian companies included in the Philippines complaint.)
- San Mateo, Imperial Beach and Marin County (filed 2017) – These three other communities in California have also sued 20 fossil fuel companies, and many of their subsidiaries, for costs related to rising sea levels. (For more, see here.)
We, and more than 50 other BC-based organizations, have challenged BC local governments to consider a class action lawsuit against fossil fuel companies. Our poll indicates that 63% of British Columbians would support a lawsuit by their local governments against fossil fuel companies to recover a share of local climate costs.
We believe that we will see more actions of this type as communities realize that we can’t afford (either locally or globally) not to challenge a business model that is based on the destruction of our global atmosphere. Big Tobacco once persuaded the public that individual smokers and public healthcare should bear the health costs of smoking – and that changed.
Dealing with climate change and building a sustainable economy is a massive job, and it’s going to be that much more difficult if the fossil fuel industry believes that it can avoid responsibility for the harm caused by its products. Climate Accountability Letters and community-led lawsuits challenge the assumption that investors and corporations can keep the profits of fossil fuels separate from their costs.