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Climate change culture shift: Talking about Exxon’s share of climate costs increases its financial risk

Metro news climate cover story
January 9, 2018

In 2017 four BC municipalities took the unprecedented step of sending Climate Accountability Letters to Chevron, Exxon and 18 other fossil fuel companies – demanding that these companies pay a fair share of local climate costs.

So what? Isn’t this basically symbolic?

Not if our goal is to make the dramatic culture shift that’s needed to tackle the immense challenge of climate change.

The barriers to making fossil fuel companies pay their fair share for climate impacts are cultural as well as legal. And in shifting how our culture sees climate change and its costs, symbolism is hugely important.

Right now, no one expects fossil fuel companies to pay for a share of climate costs – they can keep on profiting from selling their products with impunity (see our companion post on why it’s crucial to meaningful global climate action that the industry pay its share).

The costs associated with climate change are staggering. Did you know that even under fairly conservative assumptions, the BC government estimates that Metro Vancouver will need to pay $9.5 billion between now and 2100 to deal with rising sea levels? And this is just one of the many fossil fuel-fueled climate impacts facing the region. Where is the money for that going to come from?

If we’re silent about the responsibility of fossil fuel companies for climate impacts, we won’t demand accountability from the industry. Fossil fuel pollution has contributed to the increased costs of wildfires, drought and flooding, forcing our communities to spend exorbitant tax dollars in response. People will eventually recognize that the carbon majors must pay their fair share of those costs, and only then will governments begin to feel pressure to pass laws to hold those companies accountable, or to bring lawsuits to recover climate costs.

Our governments, our institutions, and even we as individuals need to get Canadians used to the idea that these companies are not paying their fair share of climate costs. The climate accountability letters that municipalities have sent are conversation starters – they invite media, politicians and the government to grapple with the true costs of the fossil fuel economy, and they require a response from global fossil fuel companies. (The District of Highlands has posted the responses that it’s received so far from Total and BHP).

More public visibility will increase the potential for Canadian action against industrial fossil fuel polluters. As more people join the conversation about the resulting legal risks to the fossil fuel industry, the increased likelihood of action creates a real incentive for those companies, and the governments that promote them, to transition to a more sustainable future. 

Starting the conversation in Germany: How a German NGO and a Peruvian farmer took on a coal giant

In 2015, German lawyer Roda Verheyen filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Peruvian farmer, Saul Luciano Lluiya, against German coal giant RWE. Lluiya was claiming the right to not have his village, Huaraz, wiped off the map when an ice dam bursts upslope – an event which is likely to occur in the near future as a result of glacial melting. He sued RWE for a small portion – just 0.5% – of the costs of draining the lake, which will reduce the risk to his village.

Verheyen reports: “When we launched the case, the media, politicians, they all said ‘You can’t sue a coal company for climate change in another country.’” The reaction was one of disbelief.

But the RWE case did not involve just courtroom strategy. It was accompanied by an active media campaign organized by the German NGO Germanwatch. The case put the question of who should pay for the impacts of climate change in Peru on trial, not just before the courts, but also before the German people. Germanwatch challenged the public to think about whether the costs of glacial melting from climate change should be borne solely by Peruvian villagers or at least partly by a large German coal company. The pros and cons of each position were debated in the press, on social media, in dining rooms.

Verheyen told me: “Now, no one says that we can’t sue RWE anymore.”

Public conversation leads to culture shift leads to legal change?

The relationship between legal action and public discourse is a complex one. There is no doubt that Lluiya’s court case created space for a public conversation about the role of the fossil fuel economy (and RWE in particular) in causing harm in Peru. Germanwatch’s media campaign also meant that the judges hearing the case came to court having thought about why a coal company might be held responsible, aware of the implications of their case for climate change. 

On November 30th, 2017 the Higher District Court Hamm agreed that Lluiya’s case had merit, clearing the way for evidence to be heard in the case, and holding that RWE’s contribution to climate change and the costs faced by Huaraz should be “measurable and calculable.” Germanwatch and Verheyen were quick to point out that regardless of the final outcome, it was a breakthrough for the court to accept that this type of case is possible.

The [court] confirmed … [that m]ajor emitters of greenhouse gases can be held liable for protective measures against climate damages. Now we can prove in a concrete case that RWE contributed and continues to contribute to the risk of a local glacier outburst flood in Huaraz.

Think for a moment about other precedent-setting cases that have changed history: Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared the segregation of schools in the U.S. to be unconstitutional) or Halpern v. Ontario (which made Ontario the first jurisdiction in North America to recognize same sex marriage). 

In each case, these judgments were unthinkable – even to lawyers and judges – only a few years before the cases were brought. The cases themselves are hugely important, bringing about fundamental shifts in the law, but they need to be understood in the context of the broader shifts in culture and public opinion that proceeded them.

There is a complicated relationship between groundbreaking court wins and public campaigns. Linda Hirshman, writing about same sex marriage campaigns in the U.S., argues:

In the real world, before the courts will act, there is almost always some shift in social legitimacy.  Civil rights litigation often speeds up the process of social legitimation, because it forces people to take sides in public, but it is almost never the first step.

These precedent-setting court cases would not have happened without public education and debate, and public protest. They would not have happened without symbols that changed the way that the parties, lawyers and judges involved in the case viewed desegregation and same-sex marriage. At the same time, the court cases created space for further societal shifts going forward.

Why climate polluters hope that the public doesn’t talk about its liability

It seems obvious that an industry knowingly selling products that impose trillions of dollars of costs and untold deaths around the world may be (and should be, in our view) incurring massive liability.

But only if you think about it.

Almost no one – lawyers, judges, investors, taxpayers, governments or the companies themselves – is used to the idea that the massive profits of the fossil fuel industry contain a potential liability.

We’re in the place where Big Tobacco was in the 1980s, when it thought itself immune to lawsuits, before public opinion had shifted. Back then the public generally agreed with Imperial Tobacco and other companies that smokers were responsible for the harm caused by cigarettes, and that they were blameless for selling the addictive product. 

When British Columbians are asked whether fossil fuel companies should pay a fair share for climate impacts, 82% of British Columbians agree. But it’s not an option that people are talking about yet – let alone demanding.

Right now far too few people bat an eye when the Canadian government simultaneously subsidizes the oil and gas industry (thereby contributing to climate change) and increases support for communities to build higher sea walls to protect themselves from rising sea levels.

And governments are not going to stop passing these climate costs on to taxpayers – and instead seek payment from the oil, gas and coal industries – unless the public demands that level of fiscal accountability.

The real risk to fossil fuel industry is not that three, five or even seven California local governments (or even New York City, just as we hit ‘publish’ on this post) launch lawsuits against them – although that’s a start. The real, long-term risk to the fossil fuel industry will emerge when:

  • people everywhere take as a given that climate change is harming their local communities and that fossil fuel companies should pay their share of those impacts;
  • people in many countries wonder why their governments are not suing fossil fuel companies, and demand laws to ensure that fossil fuel companies will be held accountable;
  • lawyers and judges in countries around the world come to court having thought about the many reasons why fossil fuel companies don’t have the right to profit from the degradation of our global atmosphere;
  • shareholders, banks and other investors take it for granted that sooner or later the law will catch up with a business model that is based on knowingly causing global harm. (Thankfully, there is some evidence that investors and their advisors are beginning to recognize the legal and financial risks related to climate change is happening, but not quickly enough).

But that shift in public consciousness won’t occur without a lot of people talking about how we’re impacted by climate change, and why we can’t afford not to demand that fossil fuel companies to pay their fair share.

In short, we need to build a societal expectation that governments and courts will ensure fiscal accountability for the true costs of the fossil fuel economy.

Other benefits to this conversation

Talking about climate change costs and the role of the fossil fuel economy has other benefits for those concerned about climate change.

First of all, climate change is still seen as a far-off threat – one that Canadians generally do not list as a top concern and do not feel particular urgency about. It’s usually seen as involving polar bears and Pacific Islanders, and perhaps future generations. Here in BC, the last year alone has seen one of the worst forest fire seasons ever as well as flooding – both likely made worse by climate change. And yet many people still think that it’s about polar bears.

Talking about how we are going to pay for current and future climate costs emphasizes that these are real costs, and acknowledges the millions already being spent by our governments to plan for adaptation and rebuild communities that have been hit by climate-related impacts.

Talking about why the fossil fuel industry is not paying its fair share of those costs questions the profitability of the fossil fuel economy, at a time when governments are allowing industry to aggressively expand the oil sands without regard to the climate costs that they are imposing on Canadians and the world.

Finally, these public discussions give people permission to recognize that they alone cannot solve the climate crisis. So much discussion of climate change has emphasized the responsibility of individuals to turn out lights and drive less. But individuals can only do so much in a society that’s built around fossil fuels – that is addicted to fossil fuels. The resulting feelings of guilt, and of being asked to make sacrifices that seem insignificant, drive many people away from supporting climate action.

How to have a conversation about fossil fuel accountability

So those Climate Accountability Letters that Victoria and other municipalities have sent?

They strike up a direct conversation with the fossil fuel companies and their shareholders. Shareholders of Chevron and Exxon should ask corporate CEOs difficult questions about the idea that those companies owe a fair share of global climate costs.

But the letters are also a symbolic but crucial way that communities and their elected officials can start a public conversation about the true costs of climate change and the role of the fossil fuel economy. That’s why Germanwatch has applauded the initiative.  

Elsewhere, Public Citizen Texas and the Center for Climate Integrity, rented a billboard in Houston after Hurricane Harvey to ask: “When will climate polluters pay a fair share?

All of us – not just local governments and environmental organizations – need to start talking about holding fossil fuel companies to account. As with Germany’s RWE case, the debate needs to occur in the media, on social media and around dinner tables. 

Fortunately, British Columbians are already writing letters to their local papers (here and here, for example) and opinion pieces highlighting the need for fossil fuel companies to be held accountable.

For real action on climate change, we all need to ask why the fossil fuel industry is getting a free pass when it comes to protecting our communities from climate change. 


Related Posts – This post is one of a series of two posts about why demanding fossil fuel company accountability for the costs of climate change helps drive climate action. The other post – What if we fought climate change with the passion of the “War on Drugs” – examines the economic and legal benefits created by a focus on the role of the fossil fuel industry in causing climate change.

Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer