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Corporate Climate Justice: Working together for fossil fuel accountability

April 12, 2018

High up in the Peruvian Andes, a small farming community called Huarez finds itself in danger of being flooded by a nearby glacier. Community member Saul Luciano Llulia works with German corporate watchdog group GermanWatch to launch a lawsuit against oil company RWE for a share of his community’s damages.

In North Dakota, members of over 566 Native American tribes, and hundreds of non-Indigenous protestors hold the largest grassroots occupation in recent American history against the Dakota Access pipeline. In Ecuador, a group of villagers take up a lawsuit against Chevron for environmental damages in their community.

In Texas, a British Columbian Indigenous Nation deliver a 60,000-name petition to a room full of Kinder Morgan shareholders. In California and New York, seven municipal governments launch litigation against the world’s largest fossil fuel companies.

Over the past decade, legal and campaign action directly targeting the fossil fuel industry has burgeoned into a global movement. From the courts to the streets, people around the world are beginning to hold companies accountable for ecological devastation, climate change, and a historical failure to protect the public interest in the pursuit of profit.

On January 19-20, West Coast worked hard with our colleagues at the Corporate Mapping Project, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), Greenpeace Canada, UBCC350 and the Leap to organize Corporate Climate Justice – A Conference for Fossil Fuel Accountability. We wanted to host a gathering to bring together people working on different strategies with the same goal: to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for its historical and ongoing role in creating and perpetuating the climate crisis. These different strategies included the diverse movements of divestment, shareholder action, Indigenous fossil fuel resistance, strategic corporate research, climate litigation, and other fossil fuel accountability campaigns.

The conference

The conference was held over two days; the first day was filled with inspiring speakers, panels and breakout groups, while the second day was spent in more intensive, strategic group exercises.

The conference was opened by Rueben George, of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, who welcomed us to unceded Coast Salish territory, and spoke powerfully about the need for Indigenous stewardship and governance of the land.

Discussion regarding strategies to address the climate crisis – including divestment, shareholder action, climate litigation, community-led fossil fuel accountability, Indigenous engagement, and strategic research – became the overarching focus of the day. Here are just a few of the great initiatives that we learned about over the course of the conference through a combination of presentations, break-out sessions and a “world café”:

  • The Indigenous Climate Network is a powerful new voice on climate activism, highlighting the leadership of Indigenous communities in solving a problem they didn’t create. Indigenous communities have been on the forefront of opposing pipelines, tar sands projects and other fossil fuel infrastructure, while also often being impacted in unique ways by climate change. The need for Indigenous participation in decision-making regarding climate change was resoundingly asserted and supported throughout the conference.
  • Richard Heede’s Carbon Majors work, which we’ve written about before, was a major topic of conversation at the conference. Heede identifies 90 entities, mostly fossil fuel companies, that are collectively responsible for about 2/3 of the greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere today.
  • Smoke and Fumes is a ground-breaking report by the Centre for International Environmental Law that lays out the history of climate deception and inaction by fossil fuel companies, tracing the industry’s knowledge of the climate impacts of fossil fuel pollution to the 1950s.
  • Reclaiming Alberta’s Future Today (RAFT) describes itself as “a detailed plan to put Alberta back to work cleaning up the oil and gas industry’s mess.” With hundreds of thousands of unreclaimed wells and hundreds of thousands of miles of unreclaimed pipelines, RAFT is demanding that the oil and gas industry pay to clean up the mess it’s left behind, as required by law. Doing so would put thousands of Albertans to work, making it a win-win proposal.
  • The Philippines Human Rights and Climate Complaint, brought by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and other organizations, has resulted in the Philippines Human Rights Commission launching a national investigation into human rights violations resulting from the role of fossil fuel companies and their products in driving climate change.
  • The Corporate Mapping Project is a collaborative initiative led by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the University of Victoria and Parkland Institute. It is a multi-year research and public engagement project investigating the power of the fossil fuel industry in Western Canada.
  • UBCC350 is a campus group campaigning for divestment and other issues at UBC. Through collective political action, they work to hold UBC accountable to its commitments to sustainability and advocate for meaningful climate leadership. Comprised of mostly UBC students, the group is an important student voice in the Lower Mainland climate movement.

Of course, we also shared information about our Climate Law in our Hands project, highlighting the power of local communities to hold fossil fuel companies globally accountable for climate impacts.

Winona LaDuke gave a powerful public talk that night, which we and the other conference organizers sponsored (kudos to CCPA for organizing), highlighting the importance of Indigenous knowledge and leadership in building a sustainable future.

Lessons learned and the path forward

The Corporate Climate Justice gathering was a success, bringing together voices from across North America and even further afield to share ideas about how to hold fossil fuel companies accountable.

Thanks to the profound knowledge and experience – not to mention patience and emotional labour – of Indigenous presenters at the conference, we gained an important lesson for our work: we must respect Indigenous governance and knowledge as the building blocks of a post-fossil fuel world, or else risk recreating the same injustices we are trying to leave behind.

It was clear from the engaged faces, tough questions and electric energy in the room that this was a much-needed gathering for the future of our movement. In fact, one of our goals for the conference was to foster a sense of community and movement-building amongst those working to hold Big Oil accountable.

The vast network of organizations and people working on supply-side strategies need more opportunities to cross-pollinate, share information, and feel united as we take on the world’s largest industry. The Corporate Climate Justice conference achieved – in our own small way – some version of that.