By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer, 23 September, 2014
Last week Nobel Peace Prize winner, and one of the spiritual leaders of our time, Archbishop Desmond Tutu called on governments to make fossil fuel companies pay for the climate damages that their product is causing. In a message to global leaders attending the UN’s Climate Summit 2014 (which is starting today, 23 September, in New York City), Tutu said (in a video embedded at the bottom of this post):
Hold those responsible for climate damages accountable. Just 90 corporations – the so-called Carbon Majors – are responsible for 63% of CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution. It is time to change the profit incentive by demanding legal liability for unsustainable environmental practices.
This statement is of great interest to us. We’ve predicted before that rising climate damages – already estimated at about $600 Billion each year – will inevitably give rise to a conversation about compensation – about who should pay for the damages.
You cannot have climate-related damages in the trillions of dollar range and not expect to have a conversation about who should pay. As we’ve written before, governments – even “rich” countries – do not necessarily have the funds needed to compensate climate victims or to pay for societies to adapt to the new climate reality. By contrast, the top 10 emitting private companies, responsible for about 16% of greenhouse gas emissions to date, have a combined annual income of $140.7 Billion (figures courtesy of Greenpeace). …
If fossil fuel companies are eventually forced to pay for at least some of the costs of climate change, whether through litigation, new legislation or international mechanisms, we can expect the costs of fossil fuels to begin to reflect the true costs of the damages being caused by climate change. And that, in turn, may help us break our dependence on fossil fuels.
Others have made similar (and earlier) predictions, such as Daniel Farber who wrote in 2007, in a paper entitled “Adapting to climate change: who should pay?”:
We should start thinking about cost allocation now because very soon the world is going to start doing so. As the realization sinks in that climate change will cause billions of dollars of harm even if we do everything feasible to cut back on emissions, the people who are directly harmed are going to start wondering whether they alone should bear the costs.
Although international negotiations are beginning to look at this issue, through the establishment of the Warsaw International Loss and Damages Mechanism (although without explicit mention at this stage of who will pay for those losses and damage), the possibility of compensation has not been much discussed by the public. Taxpayers have by in large accepted the need for government to pay compensation to the victims of extreme weather events or flooding without recognizing the need to have major greenhouse gas polluters pay their share.
But when an individual of the stature of Archbishop Tutu begins including climate compensation as a key part of the solution to climate change, we have to wonder, is this changing?
By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer