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Climate victims and the demand for climate compensation

29 October, 2014

In my own, perhaps biased, opinion, the most significant thing about our recent report on transnational liability for large-scale greenhouse gas polluters (Payback Time?) is that it is a contribution to a public conversation about liability and compensation. Even if you don’t agree that liability for climate damages is imminent (and for many it is a novel concept), we know beyond a reasonable doubt that human caused climate change is occurring and that greenhouse gas emissions are killing people and wildlife, destroying property, and devastating communities and ecosystems.  Must those very real costs – that are occurring already and will only continue to rise – be borne only by the victims? Or by some combination of the victims and taxpayers?  Or, instead, should companies that have profited directly from our fossil fuel economy pay their share? And what is a fair share?

This necessary conversation has been so absent from climate change discussions that no less a climate hawk than David Roberts of Grist Magazine does not even seem to question the assumption that large-scale greenhouse gas polluters will not be required to pay for the harm that they are causing.  In a recent, and otherwise excellent, article on the moral differences between mitigation (reducing GHG emissions) and adaptation (preparing our cities and infrastructure for climate change), Roberts riffs off a quote from White House Climate Advisor John Holdren:

“We will respond to climate change with some mix of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering; all that remains to be determined is the mix.”

It’s a powerful bit of language. It makes clear that not acting is itself a choice — a choice in favor of suffering.

But in another way, Holdren’s formulation obscures an important difference between mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate effects) and adaptation (changing infrastructure and institutions to cope with climate effects). It makes them sound fungible, as though a unit of either can be traded in for an equivalent unit of suffering. That’s misleading. They are very different, not only on a practical level but morally.

But having introduced the reality of “suffering”, Roberts has very little to say about it.  Instead, he bemoans that greenhouse gas polluters gain the whole benefit of each unit of fossil fuel they burn, but the cost is shared with the entire world – it is not the person who causes the pollution that pays, but the person who suffers. 

By emitting [a] ton of carbon we are, in a tiny, incremental way, harming all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Conversely, however, every ton of carbon emissions we prevent or eliminate benefits, in a tiny, incremental way, all of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Say I pay $10 to reduce carbon by a ton. I bear the full cost, but because all of humanity benefits, I receive only one seven-billionth of the value of my investment (give or take).

In other words, mitigation is fundamentally altruistic, other-focused.

While Roberts is correct in terms of how the politics of climate change have worked to date, he entirely ignores the possibility that GHG polluters will be made, in future, to pay some portion of the cost of the damages that they are causing.

To assume that the GHG polluters will never be called on to pay is to assume that those who suffer are essentially powerless, faceless individuals entirely incapable of holding GHG polluters to account, and that no government or authority will take any action on their behalf, or to recover public costs associated with GHG pollution.

Those suffering from the impacts of climate change are, unfortunately, often among the most vulnerable.  But not always, and even then they should not be viewed merely as passive, impotent victims.  To the extent that those who suffer from climate change have any level of political, legal, military, militant or even moral power then we can expect to see consequences for causing large-scale GHG pollution, as the damages increase and the science improves.

Jim Farber put it well in 2007 in a quote that I find myself using increasingly often:

As the realization sinks in that climate change will cause billions of dollars of harm even if we do everything feas¬ible to cut back on emissions, the people who are directly harmed are going to start wondering whether they alone should bear the costs.

As I tried to demonstrate in Payback Time, there are actually many ways that climate damages liability could be defined, and enforced, through the domestic laws of countries where climate damages are occurring – through existing legal frameworks, or through new legislation. 

The potential for climate damages litigation is global in scope. Cases could be brought in a large number of countries, under a wide range of legal theor¬ies, then enforced in Canada or other countries in which greenhouse gas producing companies have assets. As a result, these companies and their shareholders are exposed to significant legal and financial risks — and these risks will only grow. …

Increasingly, around the world, climate change is causing significant damage leading to demands for compensation. These demands, if not met through other means, will likely be addressed through climate damages litigation.

Demands for compensation are not, of course, the only way that victims could respond to the climate harms that they are suffering – terrorism, war and other forms of violence are certainly possible responses.  But that is why those of us looking for a more constructive response must participate in the crucial conversation about how the legitimate grievances of those who are “suffering” from climate change can be addressed – and how the costs of global climate damages should be equably apportioned.

With that in mind, who do you think should pay the cost of climate damages? In Payback Time we suggested that major fossil fuel companies should pay – since they have benefited financially from continued fossil fuel use and because of a recent study calculating the  respective contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions of 90 entities, mostly fossil fuel companies.  But, of course, there are many other individuals, companies and governments that have played an active role in causing climate change. 

In the following poll, select all that you believe should pay some significant portion of climate damages. Don’t worry about what percentage – I’d like to explore that question in the future.  This is not a scientific poll – it is just to get a sense of what our readers think about compensation and who should pay.  

By Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel

Photo by Ryan L.C. Quan under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported licence (obtained from Wikimedia Commons).