Big pol­luters, it’s time to pay up

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Ear­lier this year in Myan­mar, tor­ren­tial rain caused mud­slides that wiped out hun­dreds of houses and caused large-scale crop de­struc­tion. More than 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple were af­fected, and over 100 died. In Viet­nam, the same del­uges caused toxic slurry pits from coal mines to over­flow and run through vil­lages, and into the World Her­itage-listed Ha Long Bay; the death toll was 17. As such weather events be­come in­creas­ingly fre­quent and in­tense, the need to mit­i­gate and adapt to cli­mate change is be­com­ing more ur­gent than ever.

And make no mis­take: Th­ese events are, at least partly, the re­sult of cli­mate change. As the cli­mate sci­en­tist Kevin Tren­berth of the US Na­tional Cen­tre for At­mo­spheric Re­search points out, nowa­days, “[a]ll weather events are af­fected by cli­mate change, be­cause the en­vi­ron­ment in which they oc­cur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

In­ter­na­tional cli­mate ne­go­tia­tors recog­nise this, to some ex­tent. The ef­fects faced by the peo­ple of Myan­mar and Viet­nam are con­sid­ered un­avoid­able costs of fail­ing to adapt to cli­mate change, which of­fi­cials clas­sify as “loss and dam­age.” But such lan­guage fails to cap­ture the full scale of the con­se­quences – es­pe­cially their im­pact on hu­man lives. The peo­ple who died in Myan­mar and Viet­nam are not just “un­avoid­able costs,” and their loved ones can­not sim­ply “adapt” to los­ing them.

This kind of blood­less rhetoric re­flects the in­ad­e­quacy of the re­sponses to cli­mate change that in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions have so far pro­duced. In fact, if the in­dus­tri­alised world had done what was needed to stop cli­mate change, as promised a gen­er­a­tion ago, Myan­mar and Viet­nam most likely would have been spared their re­cent “loss and dam­age.”

The so-called ad­vanced economies fail­ure to ful­fill their com­mit­ments means that Myan­mar and Viet­nam are hardly the most vul­ner­a­ble de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to­day. The tiny is­land states of the Pa­cific, for ex­am­ple, have been un­able to erect ad­e­quate de­fenses against the “king tides” that are en­croach­ing on their land and caus­ing the fresh­wa­ter “lenses” be­neath their atolls to be­come brack­ish. Their pop­u­la­tions – among the world’s poor­est peo­ple – are pay­ing for cli­mate change with their lives and liveli­hoods. And with­out the resources to adapt, they will con­tinue to suf­fer.

But it gets even more per­verse. Those be­hind the prob­lem – the world’s big­gest pol­luters – con­tinue to reap bil­lions in prof­its, while re­ceiv­ing huge en­ergy sub­si­dies from gov­ern­ments (pro­jected to reach $5.3 trln in 2015, or about $10 mln per minute).

So who are th­ese pol­luters? Ac­cord­ing to a 2013 study by the sci­en­tist Rick Heede, nearly two-thirds of car­bon diox­ide emit­ted since the 1750s can be traced to just 90 of the largest fos­sil fuel- and ce­ment-pro­duc­ing en­ti­ties, most of which still op­er­ate. Fifty are in­vestor-owned com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing ChevronTex­aco, ExxonMo­bil, Shell, BP, and Pe­abody En­ergy; 31 are state-owned com­pa­nies, such as Saudi Aramco and Nor­way’s Sta­toil; and nine are states like Saudi Ara­bia and China.

Recog­nis­ing the bla­tant in­jus­tice – not to men­tion the de­struc­tive­ness – of this state of af­fairs, a new ini­tia­tive, launched by the Car­bon Levy Project and sup­ported by a grow­ing num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions, has emerged to de­mand com­pen­sa­tion for vul­ner­a­ble de­vel­op­ing coun­tries from the big pol­luters. Specif­i­cally, the Car­bon Levy Project pro­poses a tax at the point of ex­trac­tion for fos­sil fu­els.

Such a tax is con­sis­tent with in­ter­na­tional law, in­clud­ing the “pol­luter pays” prin­ci­ple, and would pro­vide a new and pre­dictable source of fi­nance – amount­ing to bil­lions of dol­lars – for the com­mu­ni­ties that need it most, with­out let­ting gov­ern­ments off the hook for pro­vid­ing pub­lic sources of fi­nance. And, by rais­ing the cost of ex­tract­ing fos­sil fu­els, it would con­trib­ute to the even­tual phase-out of a sec­tor that has no place in a cli­mate-safe world.

For­tu­nately, the world will not have to wait for moral sua­sion to carry the day. Fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments are al­ready fac­ing in­ten­si­fy­ing le­gal pres­sure. Typhoon sur­vivors in the Philip­pines de­liv­ered a com­plaint to the coun­try’s Com­mis­sion on Hu­man Rights, call­ing for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into big fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies’ re­spon­si­bil­ity for caus­ing cli­mate change. The Dutch group Ur­genda and nearly 900 co-plain­tiffs suc­cess­fully sued the Dutch gov­ern­ment, forc­ing it to adopt more strin­gent cli­mate poli­cies.

A Peru­vian farmer now in­tends to sue the Ger­man coal com­pany RWE to cover the costs of pro­tect­ing his home, which lies in the flood path of a gla­cial lake. And the sig­na­to­ries of the Peo­ples’ Dec­la­ra­tion for Cli­mate Jus­tice from Pa­cific is­land coun­tries are com­mit­ted to bring­ing a case against big pol­luters for ac­tiv­i­ties re­sult­ing in the de­struc­tion of their homes.

If no ac­tion is taken, such law­suits will only be­come more fre­quent and dif­fi­cult to de­feat. Big Oil, Big Gas, and Big Coal need to ac­cept re­spon­si­bil­ity for cli­mate change and start mak­ing real con­tri­bu­tions to adap­ta­tion, or pre­pare to bat­tle for their own sur­vival – a bat­tle that, in the long term, they sim­ply can­not win.

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