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Climate Activists: After Harvey & Irma, ‘Big Oil must pay for climate change’ – ‘Their products contributed substantially to climate change’

Peter C Frumhoff of Union of Concerned Scientists & Myles R Allen is Professor in School of Geoography and the Environment, University of Oxford: 

Excerpts: As communities in coastal Texas and Louisiana confront the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey, Irma, fueled by abnormally warm waters, is barreling into the Caribbean and threatening Puerto Rico and Florida. We know that the costs of both hurricanes will be enormous and that climate change will have made them far larger than they would have been otherwise.

New York City estimates that it will spend an estimated $19.5bn to prepare for climate change impacts through 2030. And researchers say developing countries most vulnerable to rising seas and increasing extreme weather will need between $140 and $300bn annually by 2030 to help them cope.

Who should pay these costs? In the United States, the default assumption is that costs of climate damages and adaptation should be borne by taxpayers, through flood insurance programs, federal disaster relief funds and the like, as well as by affected individuals, families and private businesses.

This assumption is now being challenged in the courts. Lawsuits filed in July by three coastal California communities against ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and other large fossil fuel companies argue that the companies, not taxpayers and residents, should bear the cost of damages from rising seas.

They draw on extensive evidence that fossil fuel companies, knowing that their products contributed substantially to climate change, engaged for decades in a coordinated campaign to publicly disparage climate science to avoid limits on emissions.

Today, we and several colleagues are publishing a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Climatic Change that shows it is possible for scientific evidence to help apportion responsibility for climate damages among fossil fuel producers.

Using a simple, well-established climate model, our study for the first time quantifies the amount of sea level rise and increase in global surface temperatures that can be traced to the emissions from specific fossil fuel companies.

Strikingly, nearly 30% of the rise in global sea level between 1880 and 2010 resulted from emissions traced to the 90 largest carbon producers. Emissions traced to the 20 companies named in California communities’ lawsuits contributed 10% of global sea level rise over the same period. More than six percent of the rise in global sea level resulted from emissions traced to ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP, the three largest contributors.

Peter C Frumhoff is the Director of Science and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Myles R Allen is Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geoography and the Environment, University of Oxford


Activist Bill McKibben added: “New study shows Exxon, BP, Chevron account for 6% of sea level rise. If Harvey cost $200 bn, that’s $12 bn on them.”