Payback Time for the Big Polluters?

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Payback Time for the Big Polluters?

The Climate Walk team in Motiong, Samar. (Photo: Climate Walk/Facebook)

The 500,000 people who marched for the climate in New York and other major cities in September have passed the torch to the people in the Philippines. The People's Climate Walk is a 40-day, 1000 km journey from Manila to ground zero in Tacloban City where it will arrive on  Saturday, 8 November—exactly one year after Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) made landfall there.

Haiyan was the biggest storm to make landfall in recorded history. Wind speeds hit 300km/h, the storm surge of more than five metres flattened homes, schools, and businesses. It killed more than 6000 people and made almost two million people homeless.

Tragically, such intense and destructive storms are likely to become more normal in the future as the climate crisis intensifies. Scientists have warned for decades that pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has and will continue to cause the global average temperatures to rise and the result will be more and more extreme weather events.

As the world gets warmer, we should prepare for more intense typhoons and other harmful impacts of climate change. Communities like those affected by Haiyan are on the frontline of climate change and will be hit first and hardest.

The organizers of the People's Climate Walk, including Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines, are supporting communities along the route to hold the big polluters legally and morally accountable.

This represents a new front in the campaign to stop dangerous global warming. Far from being safe in their corporate offices in the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, a new study from West Coast Environmental Law and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Payback Time? What the internationalization of climate litigation could mean for Canadian oil and gas companies, shows that the big polluters could find themselves facing lawsuits anywhere in the world.

Who are these big polluters? They are 50 investor-owned companies that account for more than a fifth of cumulative world emissions of industrial CO2 and methane since the industrial age.

The message that the people of the Philippines (and the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the climate marches around the world) are sending to the big oil, coal, and gas companies is: 'we have moved on to looking at which projects need to be stopped, who should pay for the damages, and how much.'

These damages are not small numbers. According to Payback Time? the damage to public and private property is estimated to be $6 trillion CAD in 2010 ($5.2 trillion US). That's just one year. Factor in the huge sums of money needed for people to adapt to living in a warming world and the numbers just get larger.

The study explains how climate-related legal actions present a material risk to the big polluters. The report, focused on Canadian companies, looks at oil and gas company Suncor, as one company that could face lawsuits and be required to pay damages.

Suncor is one of the major players in the tar sands and number 31 in the above-mentioned list of investor-owned big carbon polluters. The report estimated that Suncor's annual contribution to global net costs/damages of climate change in 2010 was CAD $591.3 million and would swell to over $4 billion by 2030.

The potential lawsuits Chevron, Exxon and other larger international producers may face could be even bigger. Using the approach in Payback Time?, Chevron's annual contribution to global net costs/damages of climate change in 2010 was approximately USD $21.4 billion.

Further, the study stresses that cases seeking recovery of climate damages will be brought in countries expected to suffer most from impacts but which have received little benefit from dirty fossil fuels, such as Ghana, India and Vietnam. It's in these countries (and others) that Suncor, Chevron, and Exxon and other large international fossil fuel producers could find themselves in court.

The big polluters want to believe that climate lawsuits are a fantasy and there is no way they can be held liable. Until now they have largely avoided being held accountable. They have armies of lawyers and seemingly unlimited resources at their disposal. But one only needs to look at what happened to Big Tobacco to see that this can change.

A second generation of climate cases is now underway. The big polluters would prefer to keep news of successful climate-related lawsuits quiet – we think you should know about them:

  • In an insurance coverage lawsuit, arising from a climate claim brought by an Inupiat Eskimo Village of Kivalina, Alaska, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the insurance company could deny coverage to AES, a global power company. The court reasoned that the greenhouse gas emissions from the company's business were intentional and did not constitute an occurrence.
  • An US district court recently halted Arch's (number 14 in the list of investor-owned big polluters) coal project, because the social costs of the product, e.g. disease and property damage associated with the increase of pollution, were not considered.
  • Shareholder activism is also on the rise. A test case has been filed against the Commonwealth Bank of Australia for its refusal to put a resolution requesting the bank to report on the carbon pollution it finances to shareholders at its upcoming annual general meeting.

We have only just started. Matt Pawa, a leading climate litigator, said: "Tobacco litigation took 30 years or more before the courts were ready and before the correct legal theories were there to make it all work... We have gotta to keep filing case after case before we get it right."

Like Big Tobacco, some of the big polluters, either directly or indirectly through outside organisations, have lied about their product, funded shady research to create doubt and confusion in people's minds, and have given money to political candidates who flatly deny global warming.

In addition to the legal and economic arguments, there is a moral duty for the big polluters to pay compensation and stop causing further harm. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "The climate crisis pits profits of the few against the welfare of the many. This is surely a moment that demands unprecedented collective action. We can no longer tinker about the edges... hold those responsible for climate damages accountable... It's time to change the profit incentive by demanding legal liability for unsustainable environmental practices."

People around the world are heeding the Archbishop's call.

In the coming weeks we will have more information to share with you about how we are helping people to hold the big polluters accountable. The People's Climate Walk in the Philippines is just the beginning.

Kristin Casper

Kristin Casper is Legal Counsel for Campaigns and Actions at Greenpeace International.

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