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Attribution Studies Could Make Fossils Liable for Climate Damage

As the bill mounted for lives disrupted and lost and property damaged by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and a summer of wildfires across western North America, the Union of Concerned Scientists says it’s time to work out how much of that multi-billion-dollar tab should be charged back to active fossil fuel producers.

“As early as 1977, investor-owned fossil fuel companies knew that the use of their products released dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane emissions that could destabilize our climate,” the UCS writes in a release.

“These companies could have taken steps to reduce the risks. Instead, they chose to misinform the public and their investors, block action to limit carbon emissions, and carried on with business as usual.”

Will those same producers now “help shoulder the costs?” the organization asks. Its answer: “They should.”

More helpful to attorneys pressing a growing number of liability claims against the fossil fuel industry for damages caused by and the cost of adapting to climate change, UCS notes, “we now have the science to determine how much the emissions related to fossil products have contributed to global temperature rise and sea lever rise,” making it possible to attribute those emissions to individual companies.

The Union cites as evidence a peer-reviewed study in the journal Climatic Change which found that 50 investor-owned fossil producers, including BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Peabody, Shell, and Total, were responsible for about 16% percent of the global average temperature increase, and around 11% of global sea level rise, from 1880 to 2010. The same companies have been responsible for about 10% of the warming and 4% of sea level rise since becoming aware in the late 1970s that the combustion of their products was destabilizing the climate.

That might reasonably expose the same firms to claims for billions of dollars in liability for the incremental damage a hotter climate is causing through fiercer forest fires and more powerful hurricanes.

“Companies knowingly violated the most basic moral principle of  ‘do no harm,’ and now they must remedy the harm they caused by paying damages and their proportion of adaptation costs,” argues Oxford international relations professor Henry Shue in a commentary on the Climate Change article.

Shue argues that “the seriousness of the harms brought by climate change ma[k]e this responsibility especially compelling. The half-century of failure by corporate carbon producers to reduce the harms caused by their products now gives them additional responsibility to correct the damage done by their decades of neglect.”

Going further, Shue adds: “Ceasing to contribute to harm includes ending exploration for additional fossil fuels.”