Polluters Are Trying to Ensure They’re Never Held Responsible for Climate Change
Last week, Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc from Louisiana to New York — but that wasn’t the only part of the country or world experiencing extreme weather events. The day before Ida raged through New Orleans, fire tornadoes blazed in California, a state currently grappling with more than a dozen active wildfires. The entire Pacific Northwest has been plagued by drought and heat waves all summer. The turmoil hasn’t been limited to North America. Italy, Lebanon, Siberia, Spain, Turkey, and Greece have been experiencing wildfires, while the Chinese province of Shaanxi has been struggling with extreme flooding and landslides.
The culprit is easily identified: man-made climate change. In recent years, “attribution science,” or the science of identifying causal connections between climate change and individual weather events, has become much more accurate. And last month, for the first time, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserted that human activity is the driving force behind planetary warming. “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” noted the new report.
According to the well-established “polluter pays” legal principle, those responsible for this warming should be held liable for the cost. Sure enough, the fossil fuel industry has increasingly found itself in the legal crosshairs of governments, impacted communities, students, and activists all over the world, especially in light of investigations showing that companies like Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change decades ago, did little to address it, and even misled the public on the dangers.
According to a January report from the UN’s Environment Programme, the number of climate change cases filed against countries and corporate actors nearly doubled in the past few years, with at least 1,550 cases filed as of July 2020. In the United States alone, twenty-four climate lawsuits — including some related to climate change–fueled wildfires — are currently moving through the courts. In February, the International Bar Association even released a model for litigants to pursue legal action related to climate change.
But the biggest polluters have yet to face meaningful consequences for planetary destruction — and it remains to be seen if they ever will. As efforts mount to hold polluters accountable, fossil fuel companies and other corporate interests are working overtime to leverage the US court and political system to avoid responsibility for the climate crisis — and offload the costs of environmental damage onto taxpayers.