The climate crisis: It's not your fault after all

The Climate Law in Our Hands initiative aims to hold major fossil fuel corporations legally and financially accountable for their role in creating the global climate crisis. This is no easy task!

The hold of these companies upon our lives goes beyond economics and energy politics: we also hold deep-seated misconceptions about who is responsible for climate change, and especially about the responsibility of the fossil fuel industry for harm caused by their products.

Paradoxically, as individuals we often place this responsibility upon ourselves instead of the fossil fuel industry. We feel social and moral pressure to make more sustainable lifestyle changes and seek out greener alternatives. While being a conscientious consumer is a worthy effort, it should not take the spotlight off the huge industrial players and the more systemic roots of climate change.

Does it help to hold ourselves responsible?

In the mid-to-late 1980s when global concern was rising over a hole in the ozone layer in the atmosphere, everyone understood that the goal was to control products that contained ozone-destroying substances, such as those used in refrigeration. Similarly, efforts to phase out lead additives in gasoline focused on ensuring that companies that produced gasoline stopped putting lead into it.

During these debates, nay-sayers did not generally ask, in a confrontational tone – “So, you’re concerned about the ozone layer? Do you own a refrigerator?” Nor did they accuse those concerned about lead pollution harming their kids as hypocrites because they owned cars.

Individuals were not seen as responsible for what was clearly as an issue of unregulated corporate activity. These were systemic problems that could not be solved by individuals acting alone.

Polls show that Canadians are deeply concerned about climate change. They want to do their part – and for others to do their part – to reduce their impact on climate change. In fact, we believe that most people are fundamentally conscientious when they are aware of the facts.

But the main public conversation about climate solutions (at least in affluent nations) centres around lifestyle activism and green consumerism, which places undue judgment and guilt on the individual. It also ignores the reality that we, as individuals, are caught in a climate-unfriendly system, and can only do so much. It is a disempowering conversation because it sets up a grand problem that needs solving – climate change – and gives people a solution that lacks the power to make a real difference.

When it comes to “green” alternatives and conscious consumerism, it also becomes a question of access and privilege: we cannot all afford to buy electric cars or retrofit our homes to be more energy efficient – and even if we did, would that really solve the crisis?

The role of the fossil fuel companies

Why didn’t we connect individual usage of ozone-depleting chemicals with the global problem? Perhaps it was because individual ozone-damaging appliances, like refrigerators, were too essential for daily life. Or perhaps it was because the industries that emitted the most chemicals hadn’t spent time and money to convince the public that everyone was equally to blame.

In the case of the fossil fuel industry’s rampant extraction, burning and marketing of dangerous emissions, we encounter a similar situation. The difference is that in this case, we’ve been misled for decades by the industry as it embarked on a well-funded campaign to take the spotlight off its own responsibility for climate change and make us believe that we, individual citizens, bear equal responsibility for reducing emissions.

Individual Canadians are made to feel guilty for causing (on average) 20.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year (and in reality that includes a share of Canada’s industrial emissions). Meanwhile, global oil giant Exxon Mobil is largely applauded for its operations and products that resulted (in 2014) in about 560,600,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. For this contribution to climate change, Exxon made US$32.5 billion. In total, about 3.1% of the human-caused greenhouse gases emissions in the global atmosphere come from Exxon’s operations and products.

Exxon Scientists have had some awareness of some the risks of fossil fuel use and climate change since at least 1957, and it was well aware of the risks that its products were causing by the 1970s. Since that time, the company used its considerable resources to fund public misinformation on the science of climate change, while aggressively lobbying against government action. 

It should also be noted that the fossil fuel industry worldwide is subsidized to the tune of US$5.3 trillion per year, according to an IMF estimate.

This cocktail of factors: massive deception campaigns, Big Oil’s deep reach into our political and economic systems, and the ubiquity of oil in our daily lives, has meant that the industry has historically never been held accountable for a fair share of the ever-rising costs of climate change. Meanwhile, these costs are being incurred anyway, and communities are currently paying for them.

People power, not corporate power

Oil flows through every corner of our economy, embedding itself as our primary source of energy. To live outside this system means having the privilege (of either time or financial resources) to buy or build energy alternatives. And yet, the burden of guilt that many face from their perceived responsibility for climate change continues to grow as we hurtle towards a disastrously warmer world.

The onus to reduce climate change-causing emissions should not be placed upon the individual who is stuck within a system that creates oil dependency.

Individuals can take personal and symbolic steps to reduce their own contribution to climate change.  However, real systemic change will come from organized, collective action, and a recognition that our voices must be raised together in order to be heard by fossil fuel companies and governments alike. We need to be prepared to engage with power, and take on the vested corporate interests that benefit from our fossil-fuel addicted system. Our true power lies in our collectivity. 

Who should pay for the costs of oil dependency?

Right now, it’s communities all over world who are paying for the costs of preparing for, and recovering from, climate impacts. This cost should not be placed solely on our communities. If the main players causing climate change (the fossil fuel industry) had to pay for the true costs of the damages they cause, they would be forced to pivot away from business as usual. Climate change and its ever-accelerating costs would become a responsibility to take seriously, if only for their financial bottom lines.

It is estimated that climate change will cost the Canadian economy $5 billion per year by 2020.  Metro Vancouver municipalities are expected to pay $9.5 billion for sea level rise before 2100. Our communities will not be able to afford the rising tide of climate costs that is bearing down on them, unless we have a fundamental question about who should help pay these costs.

Add to this the devastating impacts of climate change upon vulnerable nations and communities around the world, multiple human rights abuses by oil companies, health impacts faced by communities in extraction sites, and the numerous spills, leaks and environmental disasters fromoil infrastructure projects, and the true cost of our fossil fuel economy looms large.

It is time that we discuss the responsibility and accountability of the industry that has played a major role in creating that system, which continues to oppose changes to the oil-addicted system and which, as a result, profits to the tune of billions of dollars from selling products which it knows are destroying our atmosphere and our communities. 

Through Climate Law in Our Hands, we hope to work with BC communities to assess climate change impacts in their regions, to request a fair share of the costs of those impacts from the fossil fuel industry, and to demand this type of accountability. We have every right to expect this from the industry that in many ways created the climate crisis as we know it.

It’s time to stop granting immunity to Big Oil by taking personal responsibility for climate change.


By Anjali Appadurai, Climate Communications Specialist and Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel

Swiss grannies launch legal challenge demanding climate action

In a bold and strategic move, 420 elderly women in Switzerland have launched a legal challenge  against the Swiss government for inadequately addressing threats to their health and future generations from climate change. The group has named themselves "KlimaSeniorinnen" ("Senior Women for Climate Protection), and is working with Greenpeace Switzerland to launch the high-profilelegal challenge. 

One of the most strategic parts of this legal challenge is that it uses the Paris Agreement - which came into force on Nov 4 - as its legal teeth. This will be an important early step in setting the tone for the Agreement to be enforceable and effective as climate change intensifies and legal challenges become a more common strategy. 

Image: Greenpeace

Image: Greenpeace

Deception, delusion and double standards in fossil fuel shareholder meeting season

Staff Counsel Eugene Kung, spokesperson Reuben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and a representative from SumOfUs deliver a petition of 60,000 signatures to Kinder Morgan at the oil giant's AGM in Texas, 2015. 

Staff Counsel Eugene Kung, spokesperson Reuben George of Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and a representative from SumOfUs deliver a petition of 60,000 signatures to Kinder Morgan at the oil giant's AGM in Texas, 2015. 

The spring and early summer of each year signals a wave of annual general meetings and shareholder gatherings for corporations the world over. AGM season this year was a tough one for fossil fuel companies, who had to field difficult questions from stakeholders and shareholders alike about their energy policy and business practices.

Climate change stormed agendas, interventions and shareholder resolutions in what some called a "significant shareholder revolt on climate change." In the wake of escalating climate impacts around the world as well as the much-lauded Paris Agreement in December 2015, the chasm between what climate science tells us and the actions of the fossil fuel industry looms large.

According to a series of blog posts by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) who attended many of this year's AGMs, major climate-related issues tabled by shareholders this year included climate deception, lobbying ties, emissions targets and downright delusion about the kind of action needed to keep emissions in line with global temperature targets. Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a First Nation from British Columbia, also brought the issue of Indigenous Rights and Title into a Texas meeting room, and nonprofit groups SumOfUs and West Coast Environmental Law supported, participated, and brought up issues in meetings as well.

Climate deception

Climate deception featured strongly in discussions at this year’s meetings, likely in light of recent findings showing that the fossil fuel industry has participated in active deception since it had knowledge of climate change – as early as the 1960s. ExxonMobil, target of the now-international ‘Exxon Knew’ campaign, is today’s most well-known face of climate deception. The company had access to the most up-to-date climate science, had staff scientists on board, and conducted cutting-edge scientific research on the effects of climate change, but worked actively to amplify and exaggerate the uncertainties within the science in an effort to distort public opinion. First exposed in an investigative series by Inside Climate News in 2015, the evidence of Exxon’s history of public deception has since drawn widespread attention from the public and the business world alike.

But it’s not just Exxon. A report by UCS traces internal industry memos, reports and other evidence to show that the major fossil fuel companies – Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, Exxon – worked together to carry out carefully-planned deception campaigns, using the institutional protection of ALEC and WSPA to do sustained advocacy and media manipulation. They even used tactics as bizarre as creating fake pro-oil grassroots groups and forging letters opposing climate change legislation from real nonprofits to members of congress. An exposé by the Centre for International Environmental Law, called Smoke and Fumes, also provides a detailed paper trail of deception within the fossil fuel industry, and makes an apt comparison to the tobacco industry, which historically engaged in similar tactics.

Lobbying ties

In the meetings this year, many of the largest fossil fuel companies in the world also came under fire for their close ties with political lobbying groups, namely, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA).

ALEC is a voluntary membership organization of U.S. state legislators "dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism”. It has long been controversial for its role in allowing corporations a seat at the table in drafting model legislation, earning it the reputation of being a “corporate bill mill”. Funded almost entirely by industry, ALEC has put forth a steady slate of right-wing legislation, reports and other materials. It has infamously promoted climate denial and the controversial “Stand your ground” legislation (the bill that protected Trayvon Martin’s killer) in the US. Fossil fuel members of ALEC have included British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, Occidental, Shell, Chevron and Exxon. Many of these have publicly cut ties with the organization after facing scrutiny for the conflict of interest.

WSPA is a trade association of petroleum companies that has been active for over a hundred years (since 1907) in the western United States. In 2014, WSPA spent $8.9 million on lobbying efforts against climate and fracking legislation alone, and over $31 million on lobbying altogether. The Association has come under fire for its lobbying expenditure, its links to mainstream media, its pro-oil and climate denial campaign spending, its presence on regulatory panels and commissions, and its infamous creation of a network of “astroturf” groups to oppose environmental law reform. 

Shareholder concern about lobbying ties and climate-related lobbying efforts is growing as well, and it’s showing inside shareholder meetings, UCS reports. This year, Canadian oil giant Suncor shareholders faced an unusual choice when, at the annual general meeting, US-based corporate accountability group SumOfUs tabled a proposal calling for the Calgary-based energy giant to fully disclose all money spent on government lobbying efforts. The proposal followed several months of campaigning in support of the resolution. Surprisingly, upon voting, 40% of the shareholders in the room agreed. Chevron and Exxon faced similar shareholder proposals, with 38% of Exxon’s shareholders voting in favour.

Meeting the targets

This year’s shareholder season also revealed that despite the global conversation about climate change and the undeniable math of how much oil needs to stay in the ground (80%), the fossil fuel industry continues – in shareholder settings – to pursue its narratives of the past; namely, that the climate science is up for debate because of uncertainties in the findings, and that oil is the only viable energy source because it is necessary for our “survival”. Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, by now well-known for his controversial remarks on climate change, maintained his stance that cutting oil production is “not acceptable for humanity”. UCS scientist Kathy Mulvey, in a blog post about the meeting, is baffled at Tillerson’s insistence that “There is no alternative energy source known on the planet or available to us today to replace the pervasiveness of fossil fuels in our global economy”.

More than 150 companies have signed up to set science-based targets in the wake of the Paris Climate Agreement (which calls for nations and companies to keep global temperature increases from fossil fuel pollution well below 2 degrees of warming). To date, none of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have joined the Science Based Targets list of companies.

Indigenous rights & title

Major resource development projects have long been met with opposition from environmental and Indigenous groups. In Canada, especially since the election of a government eager to reconcile with First Nations, Aboriginal Rights and Title to land is a critical factor in decisions about energy projects. West Coast Environmental Law’s Staff Counsel Eugene Kung has attended Texas-based oil giant Kinder Morgan’s AGM for two years now as a lawyer for Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a Coast Salish people across whose lands Kinder Morgan has proposed a pipeline project.

Reuben George, a spokesperson for Tsleil-Waututh Nation, spoke about the strong indigenous opposition to the Kinder Morgan project, and asserted the right of indigenous peoples to oppose the project on the basis of their own laws.

Kinder Morgan was greeted at last year’s meeting by a petition of more than 60,000 names opposing the proposed pipeline through Tsleil-Waututh territories. This year, West Coast and Tsleil-Waututh brought a report, ‘Top 7 Reasons You Can’t Trust Kinder Morgan’, prepared by nonprofit environmental group Stand in Vancouver. 

Good signs for next year

If the serious shareholder concern from this year’s meetings persists throughout the year, we can hope for next year’s meetings to be even more uncomfortable for major polluters. Environmental groups, bolstered by the success of the divestment movement, are beginning to see shareholder advocacy as a critical tool in the fight against the seemingly impenetrable power of the fossil fuel industry. Harnessing the power of concerned people, shareholders and communities is an exciting frontier of the global climate movement, and a hopeful sign of one of the main premises of Climate Law in Our Hands – that communities have the right to demand accountability from Big Oil.


By Anjali Appadurai

California mulling change to fossil fuel liability rules

We have predicted that governments would begin enacting new laws to address the liability of fossil fuel companies for their role in causing climate change. And now we can see a first example of such legislation being debated in California, albeit on a narrow scale, through the proposed Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act. The Bill has apparently passed two Senate Committees and will shortly be debated by the California State Senate.

Unlike the model climate compensation act that we proposed in Taking Climate Justice into our own Hands (2015), the Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act does not address general liability related to climate damages.  Rather, it is focused on liability for climate misinformation and fraud committed by fossil fuel companies, but it ties that liability right back to the climate damage that Californians are experiencing:

State law provides a broad right of action to challenge “unfair” business practices. … Given the environmental, health, and economic impacts that Californians are already paying for as a result of the fossil fuel industry’s many years of public deception and their efforts to block action on climate change, it is important to hold the industry responsible. Unless the Legislature revives these claims, the state could lose the ability to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for their practices that extend back well beyond four years, as well as the damages and risks that Californians and everyone else must face for centuries to come.

The main focus of the Act is to extend the “limitation period” – the period during which claims may be brought – for actions by state and local governments in relation to misinformation by the fossil fuel companies.  However, in doing so, the Act would also confirm that the California Legislature views existing laws related to challenging “‘unfair’ business practices” as applying to fossil fuel company misinformation.

The proposed Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act represents a first example of a state changing the rules of liability specifically to address climate change related liability. It is an example of the type of conversation that we predicted would begin as climate damages, and the role of the fossil fuel companies in causing them, become more obvious:

[T]hose countries most severely impacted by climate change could adopt legislation that removes legal hurdles to climate liability. Increasingly the public may demand such legislation, rather than having the costs of climate change borne only by it victims and the general public.

What do you think – should governments enact laws to hold the fossil fuel industry liable? Should the focus of those laws be on climate denial/misinformation or on general responsibility for harm caused by climate change?


By Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel