Once upon a time there were tobacco and asbestos litigations. When products once marketed as safe turned out to be potentially lethal, scores of lawyers filed and won numerous class actions against the two industries, with a total payout exceeding the $500billion mark. Now, it is time for climate change-related lawsuits to follow.
According to the Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, more than 880 legal actions are pending in the courts of five continents, either to try constraining greenhouse gas emissions, or to press governments and corporations to adopt more aggressive climate policies. Take the legal challenge that Micronesia mounted in 2010 against the Czech Republic’s plans to expand its Prunéřov coal plant. Were the islanders bonkers? Not really. Carbon dioxide emitted in Europe adds to the atmosphere, which contributes to Arctic melting, which makes the Pacific Ocean rise. The challenge caused quite a stir, but the plant expanded anyway.
But what if this kind of litigation starts to spread the world over? Poor, guiltless, and low-lying countries may go up against rich, polluting ones. Climate-conscious US states (such as California or Washington) may challenge climate-denying Federal governments (such as the anti-science Trump administration that just scrapped the Paris Accord). More likely though, an upsurge in climate litigation would take aim at the usual targets – corporations.
According to the American climatologist Richard Heede, just five companies (ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Chevron and ConocoPhillips) have extracted enough fossil fuels to account for 12.5 per cent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide ever emitted. Add national oil and gas companies, such as Saudi Aramco or Russia’s Gazprom, and it turns out that nearly two-thirds of the world’s historical greenhouse gas emissions originate from less than 100 firms.
Climate change is escalating. The Arctic had a nightmarishly hot winter. Summer is not boding well in Turbat, Pakistan, which hit a record 53.5°C in May. For decades, scientists have been warning that this planet may be increasingly unlivable by the end of this century. If the emissions trajectory isn’t shifted soon, future generations will likely despise their grand and great-grandfathers, wishing they could sue them.
This was published in the July 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.