Fossil fuel companies bear as much responsibility as governments do for humanity’s climate predicament – and for finding a way out. Our planetary house is on fire, and these companies have literally supplied the fuel. Worse, they lied about it for decades to blunt public awareness and policy reform.
There’s no better time for ExxonMobil and other petroleum giants to be held accountable than at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November. The Glasgow summit is more than just another international meeting. It is the last chance for world leaders to limit future temperature rise to an amount that civilization can survive. Doing so, scientists say, will require a rapid, global decline in oil, gas and coal burning.
Fossil fuel companies have fiercely resisted this imperative for years, lobbying governments, often behind the scenes, to maintain the status quo. Cop26 is an ideal setting to bring the companies’ resistance to the world’s attention and put it on trial, at least in the court of public opinion.
Courts of law around the world are already leading the way. As of year end 2020, at least 1,550 climate change lawsuits have been filed worldwide against governments and companies, according to data collected by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.
Dozens of these lawsuits seek financial compensation from fossil fuel companies for the loss and damage caused by the burning of the companies’ products. Some lawsuits – for example, those brought by New York City and the state of Minnesota – point out that oil and gas companies have known privately for decades that their products would cause catastrophic temperature rise and extreme weather. Nevertheless, these companies lied about what they knew, telling the outside world that human-made climate change was unproven.
An internal Exxon document dated 16 October 1979 and stamped “Proprietary Information” stated that increasing fossil fuel combustion “will cause a warming of the earth’s surface … and dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050”. Royal Dutch Shell even anticipated the current wave of lawsuits: an internal study in 1998 forecast a scenario in which environmental groups would band together to file “a class action lawsuit on the grounds of neglecting what scientists, including [the industry’s] own, have been saying for years”.
Indeed, last May the Netherlands branch of the advocacy group Friends of the Earth won a landmark case against Shell. A Dutch court ordered Shell to bring its global operations in line with the Paris agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. This will require Shell to reduce both its own and its customers’ emissions by a staggering 45% from 2019 levels by 2030. Shell is appealing the ruling.
Such large, rapid emissions reductions happen to be exactly what the latest science says the Glasgow summit must achieve. Only by slashing heat-trapping emissions in half by 2030 can humanity plausibly achieve the larger imperative of ending emissions entirely by 2050.
Fossil fuel companies cannot be put on trial in Glasgow: the Cop26 summit is a diplomatic meeting, not a court of law. But wrongdoing can also be alleged and adjudicated in courts of public opinion. Cop26, as a high-profile gathering of thousands of government officials and civil society representatives that will receive extensive media coverage, could have a powerful impact on public narratives throughout the world.
The formal Cop26 proceedings also offer an opportunity to make fossil fuel companies a constructive part of the solution to the climate emergency. Governments and climate activists in the global south have long demanded compensation for the loss and damage poor countries suffer from extreme weather events that are worsened by the climate crisis, such as heat, drought, storms and rising seas. They justify this demand on two grounds: these climate impacts fall disproportionately on poor countries, even though they have emitted exponentially less heat-trapping gases than rich countries have.
Rich countries accept this logic: in the Paris agreement, they pledged to provide $100bn a year in climate aid to poor countries. They have yet to honor that pledge, however, and experts calculate that poor countries actually need at least twice that much money to adapt to climate impacts while also shifting their economies to clean energy.
Whatever the actual amount, taxpayers in rich countries are the ones currently slated to cover the cost of such climate aid. But why shouldn’t that burden fall instead on the true authors of the climate emergency?
Fossil fuel companies have known for decades that they were driving civilization to ruin. They didn’t care. Indeed, they lied to keep the profits rolling in. Isn’t it time for them to start paying for the trouble and suffering they’ve caused?
This story is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story. Mark Hertsgaard is Covering Climate Now’s executive director