Over my toast and marmite this morning, listening to the radio, I heard reports of the devastation caused by hurricane Irma (taking over after a few weeks from its older brother Harvey). Then an Oxford Professor called Myles R Allen came on and announced new research that can – via climate science – pin the blame on specific companies
To quote the Kaiser Chiefs: I predict a riot.
The idea is a pretty simple one, although the implementation is understandably complex and statistical. Oil companies have been pumping out stuff that has contributed to climate change for decades. Climate change, as well as altering the long-run averages of weather variables, has a particularly strong effect on the ‘tails’ of the distribution. That is, you get more violent events happening: flooding, hurricanes, extremely cold winters, extremely hot summers.
Violent events, as we have seen in the last few weeks, can and do cause massive expense. So who should pay? At the moment it is the ordinary taxpayer. Professor Allen and his co-author Peter C Frumhoff believe that the bill (or rather, the excess bill over and above what would have been incurred without humanly-caused climate change) should be presented to the oil companies. It should be split among the companies in proportion to the amount of CO2-producing products they’ve pumped out over the years.
This all has a crude (sorry) kind of gut-level appeal. Why shouldn’t these massive corporations pay for the damage they’ve caused? Especially when, it is alleged, they have known about climate change for decades and tried to avoid taking action on it.
The reality is trickier.
First of all, on a purely ethical level, is it right to blame Big Oil exclusively? They pumped, and often refined, the crude but it was burned by a variety of other firms. Shouldn’t power companies also be held responsible? How about the manufacturers of cars or aeroplanes that rely on refined fuels? Come to that, how about the suppliers of raw materials to these firms? And, ultimately, don’t Western consumers – the end purchasers of all these CO2-generating products – have a responsibility too? We all enjoyed the benefits.
The fact is, all advanced economies for the last 100 years have been built on a massive foundation of fossil fuel. The connections between the strands of economic activity that have resulted in climate change are supremely complex.
And this suggests the real difficulty with implementing Frumhoff and Allen’s idea: the practical challenges of getting any court to agree. To start, any attack on Big Oil will have to defeat the defense that humans didn’t cause climate change in the first place. This is a view held by an increasingly outnumbered but still shrill body of people.
Then, linking what a specific company did to its impact will be fraught with difficulties: challenges to the Frumhoff, Allen et al methodology would be intense. Even if you got past this stage, oil companies could point the finger at other firms which used and burned the oil products – a defense, which, as I mentioned above, I think has some merit.
Last, the companies could point to the taxes they have paid already and ask the pointed question: if it is so obvious that climate change is our fault, why didn’t governments tax us more to pay for its effects? I suspect that getting to the answer – governments haven’t really taken climate change that seriously because their voters are apathetic – would eat up man-decades of court time.
All told, it would be a legal minefield.
All of which leads to one overwhelming conclusion. There is only one group in society that would definitely benefit from the complex, protracted and expensive process of trying to make the oil companies pay for climate change, regardless of outcome.
With that, I’ll leave you and try, once again, to get my sons interested in a career at the bar.