Could companies be made to pay for stoking climate change?

by Anna Pujol-Mazzini | @annapmzn | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 8 September 2017 11:48 GMT

A woman walks through a flooded path as Hurricane Irma moves off from the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, in Nagua, Dominican Republic September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

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"People who were harmed by wildfires, heatwaves (and) by rising sea levels ... have a much stronger basis to go in the court and demand redress for those harms"

By Anna Pujol-Mazzini

LONDON, Sept 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world's top 90 fossil fuel producers, including Chevron and ExxonMobil, have caused half of global temperature increases since 1880, researchers said, potentially enabling people who have been harmed by climate change to sue for damages.

The study in the journal Climatic Change is the first to assess climate change emissions by private and state-owned oil, gas and cement companies, rather than countries, amid debate over who should pay for the impacts of climate change.

"Companies knowingly violated the most basic moral principle of 'do no harm', and now they must remedy the harm they caused by paying damages and their proportion of adaptation costs," said the University of Oxford's Henry Shue.

"(They) carried out a decades-long campaign to sow doubts about those harms in order to ensure fossil fuels would remain central to global energy production," the politics professor said in a statement on the implications of the report.

Some of the biggest private polluters cited in the study were Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP, each of which contributed more than two percent of carbon dioxide increases since 1880, the study said.

Chevron and BP declined to comment on the report, while ExxonMobil did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In recent years, oil giants like Exxon and BP have supported government efforts to regulate planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, including through the Paris climate deal agreed by nearly 200 nations in 2015.

Under the Paris deal, countries pledged to keep the rise in average global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

Average surface temperatures are already 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times, the World Meteorological Organization says.

The study calculated the warming caused by carbon dioxide and methane emissions from the extraction, production and use of the companies' products between 1880 and 2010.

The precision with which major carbon producers' contribution to climate change can be measured could be game-changing, said Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law.

"People who were harmed by wildfires, heatwaves (and) by rising sea levels ... have a much stronger basis to go in the court and demand redress for those harms," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While the effects of greenhouses gases on global warming were unknown a century ago, more than half of the companies' emissions were after the 1980s, when the evidence was clear, the study said.

(Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini @annapmzn, Editing by Katy Migiro and Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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