Climate Change Liability: Holding the Perpetrators Responsible


Can the primary culprits of global warming be held liable for undermining efforts to combat climate change?  That may sound like something a heavier, bearded Al Gore might have scribbled on a napkin in the middle of the night, but there’s reason to believe that it may not be so far-fetched.  At least, that’s what a trio of high-profile environmental groups are suggesting.

On May 28, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the Center for International Environmental Law sent letters to the executives of 35 fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, Conoco and Chevron, asking the question posed above.  They also sent letters to those companies’ primary director and officer (D&O) insurers, asking them a series of questions regarding how coverage for D&Os might be affected by evidence that the insured misled regulators, investors and the public as to the safety and/or risks associated with their products.  The full list of targeted companies is here.  If you’re an energy executive, you should now be very, very scared (and equally interested in the insurance companies’ responses).  The notion even has its own hashtag on Twitter:  #climateliability.

So what’s the legal theory?  As Greenpeace, et al. put it in their letters:

“The corporations who share the majority of responsibility for the estimated global industrial emissions of CO2 and methane over the past 150 years may have been or may be working to defeat action on climate change and clean energy by funding climate denial and disseminating false or misleading information on climate risks.”

They also attached a helpful Annex to their letters, detailing the involvement of the fossil fuel industry, either directly or indirectly, in undermining action on climate change and in climate denial efforts.  According to a recent study, just 90 carbon producers (so-called “Carbon Majors”) are responsible for more than half — 63 percent of global industrial emissions, in fact– of the greenhouse gases that cause global climate change.  Of the Carbon Majors, 50 are publicly-traded and investor-owned (just five of which — BP, Chevron, Conoco, ExxonMobil and Shell — produced enough fossil fuel to account for 12.5 percent of human-generated CO2 since 1854).

Publicly-traded companies have certain duties to their investors and to the public, and what they say or fail to say — particularly concerning risks related to their operations — can have serious legal consequences.  One thing that a publicly-traded company cannot do, for example, is mislead investors as to “material” facts — i.e., facts that would influence an investor’s decision whether or not to purchase, sell or hold a company’s stock.  Such behavior is more commonly known as “securities fraud,” and it is criminal.  As the Nation puts it, “anthropogenic climate change has been accepted science since at least 1990” — meaning fossil fuel companies have been aware for a quarter-century that they are contributing to global warming.  So, to the extent that publicly-traded Carbon Majors were hiding — or working to delegitimize the science regarding — climate change-related risks associated with their products, they may be guilty of fraud.  That, at least, seems to be the theory.

And there’s more.  Last month, insurance giant, Farmers, filed nine class action lawsuits against dozens of localities in Illinois, accusing them of failing to prepare for severe rains and flooding — the costs of climate change, in other words.  Farmers’ argument is that local governments should have known that the rising temperatures caused by global warming would result in heavier rains and, therefore, they should have taken certain precautions.  Yet, according to Farmers, the local governments failed to sufficiently prepare (i.e., they neglected to fortify the sewers and storm drains).

Since we’re on the subject, there is even more encouraging news, this time from the federal government.  Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the “Clean Power Plan” rule — the first-ever rule aimed at regulating CO2 emissions from America’s existing coal-fired power plants.  When combined with forthcoming emissions targets for each state, the new carbon regulations will aim to cut CO2 emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (or 17 percent from 2013 levels).

This being 21st Century America, the EPA’s action — and the president’s support thereof — has been called Obama’s “War on Coal,” and it is a war that is desperately needed.  As I have summarized here, coal is really bad for the environment, and, as a majority of Americans now recognize, climate change is real and it is probably going to kill us all unless we do something really drastic to stem the tide.

Yet, for the Carbon Majors, there is a hell of a lot at stake.  As Chris Hayes pointed out in a remarkable recent piece, if we are serious about saving our planet, the Carbon Majors are going to have to forfeit trillions of dollars of wealth — an ask so monumental that the only real historical parallel is the abolition of slavery.  Which is to say that there is an immense amount of work to do and there is sure to be a brutal fight ahead.  However, these recent developments — new legal avenues to hold companies’ liable for climate change; Obama ramping up his “War on Coal” — are legitimate steps forward, and ones to watch closely in the coming years.

Image credit: Flickr/Steve Brady

Michael Kourabas is a lawyer and business development professional, currently working for an international law firm in New York. He also serves as an Editorial Adviser to radioBANG. His experience includes international human rights, CSR, and educational policy work in both the private and public sectors.

Michael Kourabas

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

65 responses

  1. What a BS! “may have been or may be working to defeat action” – in other words, and still with the exactly same meaning – may have not been or may not. That gives you 50% doubt. Besides, what about the millions who burn the fuel produced by the above mentioned companies? If you really want to influence CO2 emissions and pollution – stop transportation, heating, and cooling. Not much of a popular support, eh?

  2. The climate change hoax is a political agenda based on manipulated science. Pretty obvious when the leftists have adopted it as a reason to punish capitalism.

  3. Just a huge chunk of evidence supporting my long-held position: The climate change hoax is the largest cash-grab effort the left has ever undertaken – Nothing more, nothing less.

    1. why would scientists from across the globe who have done their research and actually know what they are talking about and are all in agreement that man made global warming is a serious issue all be in on some sort of “conspiracy” i mean really? if it were the politicians yes i would agree but since the scientists are the ones who know what they are talking about why would they all be lying?

      1. yet everything they predicted would happened has not happened. this is what happens when you do science by consensus rather than searching for the truth. man made climate change is the biggest bunch of BS ever contrived….

        1. what are you talking about?? they are predicting that by the year 2100 the earth will get hotter by a couple of degrees celsius if we stay on our current path which is not good. it is not the year 2100 yet so you really cant say that what has been predicted hasnt happened. also, Antarctica keeps melting, the glaciers in the arctic keep melting, summers are getting longer and hotter, all of which has been predicted, so i have no idea what you are referring to. last but not least, i am supposed to take your word over the word of a scientist that has the proper credentials and has done climate research and actually knows what he is talking about when it comes to climate? Get real man the evidence is right in front of you.

        2. Unproven mathematical models publicly funded by billions in grants: 1) Co2 is a trace gas. It’s current ppm count, 399, equates to just under 4/100ths of 1% of total atmospheric gasses.

          2) Man’s contribution to the Co2 total is minuscule, with the most radical estimates at 4.5%, although 3% is a common assignment.

          3) Out of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, Co2 can only absorb 3 fingerprint waves of blackbody IR (2.7, 4.3, and 15 micrometers). Of these 3, only 15m is emitted in abundance for capture.

          4) Water vapor is the driving force of the greenhouse effect, at 95% according to a pie chart submitted by the DOE. Co2’s effect is 3.62%.

          5) It’s been 17+ years since the last increase in the global average temperature, yet in that same time period, Co2 ppm numbers have increased from 364 ppm to 399 ppm (that’s 36 thousandths of one percent to just under 40 thousandths of one percent).

        3. well your argument immedietly crumbles because you say its some sort of government conspiracy yet you are using DOE numbers to support your argument. you need to watch episode 12 of cosmos: a spacetime odyssey. neil degrasse tyson is one of the smartest people on earth and if he says its real then i would take his word for it.

        4. well lets see who is more dim witted the person listening to an actual scientist that has done his research and knows what he is talking about when it comes to climate research or a person that has absolutely zero credentials when it comes to climate research just believing any old thing he reads off of the internet hmm thats a tough one. come on jim why would thousands and thousands of scientists that actually understand climate change lie? a politician definitely but why would this many scientists all lie about something like this?

  4. How can you have a conversation with some one so ignorant? There is not one shred of edivence that humans have any effect on global climate change not one. All they have are government sponsored models that seem to change depending on the agenda. 20 years ago it was global cooling and just a few years ago al gorie and the like told of how in 10 years we would all be underwater… HMMMM I still have land showing maybe the water just has not reached me yet?

  5. Finally, this is what i’ve been asking during the whole debate.
    Let’s bring your tree hugging government paid scientists to a court of law and have them explain to their best ability how guesstimated numbers they produce in every one of their flawed climate models are then passed onto and edited by political hacks, then spit out as talking points, now pass for unquestionable scientific certainty, let alone evidence of anything other than proof of a large herd of American thought deprived sheep.

    1. Also why is it always different for the AGW crowd if a study was funded by an oil company versus a UN funded study? I’m not saying that the oil company funded study is valid but they somehow think the UN is trustworthy? As if the UN isn’t corrupt or doesn’t have it’s own agenda, remember climate gate? You can even go tot he UN’s webpage and see for yourself that they want a carbon tax, but somehow that is different?

  6. I’d like to see them try Mother Nature. She is the biggest cause of both global warming & cooling. But they will not, cause they can only get money from humans, not Mother Nature. Back in 2008 articles were written about volcanoes under the Antarctic ice, guess what, their melting the ice. But since this is a natural thing, we have to say it is man caused!

  7. Any citizen of the world, particularly scientists and politicians who have a vested interest in perpetrating the global warming FRAUD, who are found GUILTY of producing fraudulent data, “tricking data” “hiding the decline” of data that may disprove the unproven theory of AGW, or perpetrating inaccurate and defective climate models, and who have abused the scientific process to advance a fraudulently theory and cause should be found GUILTY of a CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY and should suffer the penalty of public execution.

  8. I say hold Michael Kourabas accountable for his role is perpetrating the FRAUD of anthropogenic global warming theory, dooming 3rd world nations to a perpetual life of extreme poverty by denying them affordable energy sources, leading to the death and misery of millions. For this CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY, Nurnberg style trials should be held, and the ultimate price paid by the criminals.

  9. Dems are trying to legislate a narrative change hurting the
    American people in the process! All Democrats and supporters here and abroad,
    are trying to flood the media with hysterical climate change & global
    warming alarms to take the heat off Dem candidates in the November 2014 and
    2016 elections due to the train wreck of Obamacare! They shout, scream, cry,
    make outlandish claims and won’t stop till after the elections! Poor Democrats!
    The tsunami cometh!

  10. Relax, people. There will be no lawsuits. Rather, the activists will threaten big lawsuits and then negotiate for an out-of-court settlement. It’s all about the cash.

  11. Green is the new RED and nothing more than Commie propaganda from the self-loathing, un-American, flat-Earth, no-growth, enviro-Nazi, left-wing nut jobs! Regulations, carbon credits, taxes, and fines do not a difference make. An American who is not angry about his enslavement by the bloated Big Government bureaucracies and the tyrannical oppression by Barry Soetoro Hussein “King Louis XVI” Oba-Mao and his minions just is not paying attention.

      1. Good. Please find a nice Islamo-Nazi nation like Iran, or perhaps a nice Commie collective like China to call home. Maybe Kenya fits the bill for you, because you feel the same way Moochelle “Marie Antoinette” Oba-Mao feels, not forgetting Barry Soetoro. You really hate yourself but want to blame me because I Iove the United States of America and the freedom to think my own thoughts. One more thing, genius. The contraction of “you are” is “you’re”, not “your”.

      1. Funny-Bill Clinton said Iraq had WMD in 1998. HRC said they did, and she voted to invade Iraq. Go tell the Kurds that had relatives killed after Desert Storm by Saddam’s WMD, that he didn’t have them. And-some libs have posted that we sold those WMD to Iraq.

  12. Only 25% of Americans doubt climate change, 40% of Americans dont realize the Sun is a Star. The average American is not as smart as they believe they are, 55% of Americans think their smarter then most people. 51% of Americans dont understand evolution. But yeah these nutters come online and troll climate change, the GOP base are just trolls.

  13. Atmospheric CO2 is only 400 parts per million, a small change is a big deal. CO2 is only 0.04% of the air, a small change is a big deal. Unfortunately the GOP base are online trolls and tin foil hat level crazy. You can’t fix stupid and the GOP base are more like Honey Boo Boo level stupid. NASCAR fan level stupid.

    1. The science says there is nothing to it. Measured earth temperatures say more CO2 equals no temperature increase. My experienced eye says it getting cooler.

  14. Beware of scientists who make these ridiculous claims when I was a young man we were heading into an ice age and now with the CO2 levels less than during the era of the Dinosaurs we enter a new phase of obfuscation and distortion by people who couldn’t find their butts with two hands but make predictions that have never materialized they are full of ca ca .

  15. The AGW Grand Plan.

    Global Warming was never about climate change! “Climate change policy is about how we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth.” – IPCC official Ottmar Edenhofer

    Sierra Club Touts Economic ‘De-Growth’: ‘We have to de-grow our economy’ to ‘temper climate disruption, and foster a stable, equitable world economy

    UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres laments U.S. democracy is ‘very detrimental’ in war on global warming.

    Global warming prof. Kevin Anderson – who has ‘cut back on showering’ to save planet – asserts economic ‘de-growth’ is needed to fight climate change

    NASA scientist James Hansen endorses book which calls for ‘ridding the world of Industrial Civilization’ – Hansen declares author ‘has it right…the system is the problem’

    Warmist Helen Camakaris suggests that the threat of CO2 is so large that we need “a new kind of democracy” where voters have less power and warmist “experts” have more power.

    Tapia Granados in the online Marxist magazine, The Monthly Review, argues that the current capitalist system “has to die to allow for human progress” such as dealing with supra-national issues such as global warming. Threats such as these are so serious, he believes, that not only capitalism, but also national government must go. Only world socialism, it seems, can save us. “Capitalism will have to disappear to allow for a system more in agreement with the present stage of human civilization. That stage has led us to form a global society in which national states and governments have become historical relics, increasingly unable to cope with worldwide problems that require worldwide solutions.”

    Gus Hall, National chairman of the Communist Party: “Human society cannot basically stop the destruction of the environment under capitalism. Socialism is the only structure that makes it possible.”

    Christine Stewart Canadian Environment Minister said, “No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits . . . Climate change provides the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.”

    Louis Proyect of Columbia University, “The answer to global warming is in the abolition of private property and production for human need. A socialist world would place an enormous priority on alternative energy sources. This is what ecologically-minded socialists have been exploring for quite some time now.”

    Havel Wolf member of the Seattle Audubon Society says: “The Communist Party USA’s environmental program “presents a viable plan to carry out on the long march to socialism.”

    According to A Layman’s Guide to Anthropogenic (Man-Made) Global Warming
    “Fear of AGW provides a way to engage everyone in the movement. Socialists of all stripes no longer have to spew Marxist notions that turn most people off; now, they can talk the science of global warming and hurricanes and massive floods and such, and, using fear, trample the average guy into their socialist goals of stifling capitalism, growth, and having the government take over the economy through this environmental back-door.”

    Former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth (D-CO), then representing the Clinton-Gore administration as U.S Undersecretary of State for global issues, addressing the same Rio Climate Summit audience, agreed: “We have got to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.” (Wirth now heads the UN Foundation which lobbies for hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to help underdeveloped countries fight climate change.)

    Opening remarks offered by Maurice Strong, who organized the first U.N. Earth Climate Summit (1992) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, revealed the real goal: “We may get to the point where the only way of saving the world will be for industrialized civilization to collapse. Isn’t it our responsibility to bring this about?”
    Also speaking at the Rio conference, Deputy Assistant of State Richard Benedick, who then headed the policy divisions of the U.S. State Department said: “A global warming treaty [Kyoto] must be implemented even if there is no scientific evidence to back the [enhanced] greenhouse effect.”

    “It doesn’t matter what is true, it only matters what people believe is true.” – Paul Watson, co-founder of Greenpeace.

    “We have wished, we eco-freaks, for a disaster or for a social change to come and bomb us into Stone Age, where we might live like Indians in our valley, with our localism, our appropriate technology, our gardens, our homemade religion—guilt-free at last!” – Steward Brand, writing in the Earth Catalog.

    “Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental.” – Dave Forman, founder of Earth First

  16. You would have to prove they caused the climate change. Besides the climate is not currently changing. EPA data shows ocean temperatures have been constant for 17+ years. No correlation between CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean temperatures. Its all about stealing your wealth anyway the governments can get it. By the way, wealth equals freedom.

  17. “The great thing about a scientific fact, is that it is true whether you believe it or not”. Climate change due to Human CO2 emissions causing global warming is a fact. Turning it into a political debate was Faux News’ corporation controlled propaganda, and it obviously worked on the ignorant.

  18. Its insanity. The more shit you build, the closer you build your shit to rivers and coastlines, the higher probability a flood will affect your shit. Just like roulette. Cover more of the board and you got a higher probability of winning. No ones forcing companies to build the’yre shit. Any of these cases should be thrown out.

  19. Hey, I don’t care who you blame, as long as I get my big, fat check. I’m a global warming victim. Fork over my share of the profits, now. I’m not waiting a century to find out if any of this was true or not.

  20. Hilarious.

    The companies that sell us the power are to blame, and NOT the people who buy it?

    Are you kidding me?

    The Tennessee Center for Policy Research charged Monday that the gas and electric bills for the former vice president’s 20-room home and pool house devoured nearly 221,000 kilowatt-hours in 2006, more than 20 times the national average of 10,656 kilowatt-hours.

    “If this were any other person with $30,000-a-year in utility bills, I wouldn’t care,” says the Center’s 27-year-old president, Drew Johnson. “But he tells other people how to live and he’s not following his own rules.”
    But don’t blame AL, blame the company that sells the electricity?

  21. I see many deluded or deceitful climate science deniers below, spouting
    their usual pathetic mishmash of stupidity, lies and misdirection. In
    addition to every National Academy and major scientific organisation on
    Earth having endorsed the science, every major fossil fuel company on
    Earth has too. Check out the corporate websites for the environmental
    statements by, for example, the largest such as:
    Exxon Mobil
    Shell Oil
    Total Oil
    CNPC (China National Petroleum Company)
    American Coal Council

    You will not find a mention of the weak minded arguments that the deniers
    here have just spouted – not a trace. This is because the fossil fuel
    companies, WHO HAVE THE MOST FINANCIALLY TO LOSE if climate science is
    true have investigated it, probably reluctantly, and have concluded that
    it is true – there is not a trace of the fantasised conspiracies that
    the tin foil hat idiots below believe in. The denialists’ fallacious
    arguments are nowhere to be seen – it follows that if those with most
    to lose, and the most money to investigate the truth, accept the science
    then clearly the denialist arguments, no matter how plausible they seem
    to scientific illiterates, the gullible and ignorant are just twisted
    and deceitful propaganda from deeply and pathologically irresponsible

  22. pretty interesting but i am figuring that where there is in some cases temperatures have not been going up in some cases..hurricanes are not as many in a lot of cases..tornadoes have been less etc etc etc..that is all proven too.. so lets assume that if it also proven that man made global warming / climate change is proven too be wrong.. can we then take all these organisations and al gore and whoever else too court and sue the crap out of them then ????

  23. “In a major address at Georgetown University Tuesday, President Barack Obama referred derogatorily to deniers of climate change as members of a “Flat Earth Society.””

    Obama’s speech writes did not know that
    “Flat Earth Society and its president thinks that anthropogenic climate change is real”

  24. Any scientist, government employee, or contractor, found guilty of falsifying data, rigging results, and presenting false hypotheses in controversion of the scientific method in order to advance the political cause of Anthropogenic Global Warming should be found guilty of a “CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY” — and subject to the penalty of incarceration for the balance of their natural life.

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